The Arrogance of a Well-Fed Society

To truly help developing societies, we need to answer their immediate needs. 


This post originally appeared in RealClearScience. You can read the original here.

Every time I write an article about population growth or poverty, I receive at least one e-mail insisting that there are too many humans on the planet. That erroneous statement is usually followed up with a not-so-subtle suggestion that letting a few people starve to death wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but instead would actually make the planet a safer, richer and more sustainable place.

Not many things shock me anymore. But the arrogance and callousness of a well-fed society toward those who are less fortunate always leaves me stunned.

What is particularly frustrating is that both sides of the political spectrum claim to be the true champions of the poor – while simultaneously endorsing policies that disproportionately harm them.

The Left repeatedly insists that climate change is the world’s #1 problem, and this has distracted us from the world’s actual #1 problem: Poverty. About 1.3 billion people don’t have electricity, meaning they also don’t have adequate access to food, healthcare or the Internet. Essentially, such communities are condemned to a life of indefinite poverty. Providing them with cheap electricity is a compassionate, progressive thing to do.

Or at least it was at one time. In an article posted on New Geography, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus explain how the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) “established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise.”

Why is it necessary to make cheap electricity a public good? Because it helps end the vicious cycle of poverty. The authors describe the stark reality of life in the American South in the 1930s:

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

The TVA helped change this. Cheap hydroelectric power lifted residents out of poverty and even helped restore the environment.

Therefore, providing cheap electricity to the 1.3 billion people without it should be a top global priority. Solar and wind power should be implemented if possible, but not all locations will be amenable to that technology. And that means it will be necessary to burn more fossil fuels in some locations, even though more people will die as a result of air pollution. But given a choice between a life of poverty (and all the hazards that come with it) versus a chance at a more prosperous life (albeit one with an increased risk of lung cancer), most people in the developing world would probably choose the latter, even if that upsets climate-obsessed progressives in the rich world.

On the Right, conservatives need to give up their ideological opposition to birth control. While the world is not overpopulated as a whole, overpopulation does cause issues at the regional level. (That is why I like to say the world is not overpopulated, but rather “maldistributed.”) For instance, only so many people can live in the U.S. Southwest before water shortages become a routine problem.

At the behest of President George W. Bush, the United States implemented a program called PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) that was rightfully praised for saving millions of Africans from HIV. But the program was criticized for doing little (perhaps even undermining efforts) to provide women with birth control. But, cheap birth control – just like cheap electricity – is an important tool to help end the vicious cycle of poverty.

To truly help developing societies, we need to answer their immediate needs. That is far more compassionate than trying to shape them into the societies we would like them to be.

Dr. Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience and co-author of Science Left Behind.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

(Photo by Andres Pantoja/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
Keep reading Show less