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'Natural' Doesn't Always Mean Good, Part Three, Epilog
The massive damage humans have done to the natural world has provoked a backlash that could be just as dangerous, or more. There is a growing global rejection of technology and almost anything human-made in favor of whatever is more 'natural'. But a simplistic rejection of modern technologies eliminates many of our best options for solving the problems we've created.
The one lane road weaves through a rough valley of boulder-strewn fields in the mountainous Western Autonomous Region of China, just east of Tibet. An occasional Buddhist monastery sits on a hillside, decorated with strings of waving colored prayer flags that brighten the otherwise austere landscape. We drive along, peering anxiously up at the overcast sky, hoping the clouds will break and allow us the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a glimpse of a total solar eclipse
The sky begins to dim, and like a gift, the clouds thin, just enough that we can see it has begun. We pull over next to a small white prayer Stupa along a stream and gaze up. A dark sharp curving shadow is spreading down from the upper edge of the sun! Through thin clouds we can see it all, see the curved shadow growing, watch it move, see the sun steadily disappearing in the middle of the day! Our hearts race! Buddhist prayer chants echo from distant monasteries all along the valley, to honor a moment so special that it is believed to magnify the Karmic results of one’s actions millions of times.
The sun slowly disappears until only a sliver at the bottom is left, a bright Cheshire cat grin, and then, as if a switch was flipped, it is fully gone and the dim afternoon falls suddenly into nighttime darkness, only a glowing shimmering edge around the shadow left to mark where the sun is hiding. It is magical. We know it is no more than a well-understood physical phenomenon, a predictable astronomical coincidence. But it feels magical, special, a privilege, and a reminder to be humble, almost like a purposeful message from Nature saying, “Hey you puny humans, don’t get so proud that you forget who is really running things!”
The moon’s shadow slides slowly on, and after a few minutes of complete darkness, the tiniest sliver of the sun appears, and night snaps back into day. Grinning, we tuck the gift of this moment in our hearts and drive on.
The belief in an idealized Edenic Nature, that we are separate from that Nature, that we are so powerful that we are destroying all of Nature, and by dint of our superior reason that we can outsmart our own natural instincts, poses a serious threat to human and environmental health in two ways. As mentioned in Part Two, it’s dangerous to place so much faith in a solution that simply cannot be achieved given the inherently instinctive nature of human cognition and the overpowering "me first" imperative of survival. But more, the narrow anthropocentric view that modern civilization is ruining Nature — that modern civilization is almost antithetical to the very concept of Nature — animates a growing opposition to many of the modern tools, which, if more wisely applied, can help reduce some of the damage we’re doing. Consider just a few:
These products and technologies, and many more, are the "monsters" in Bruno Latour’s insightful essay Love Your Monsters, Why We Must Care For Our Technologies As We Do Our Children. In the eyes of environmental leaders like Vandana Shiva, who preach that we need to get Back to The Garden, these technologies and others, and even modern civilization itself (as Professor Wilson laments), are evil. Threats. Only harmful, not also potentially helpful. The products of our intelligence, modernity itself, have become the bad guy. As Shiva has written, modern humans and science are at war.
“The war against the Earth began with ... Francis Bacon, called the father of modern science, who said that science and the inventions that result do not ‘merely exert a gentle guidance over nature’s course; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.’"
Of course Bacon wasn’t necessarily advocating that "science and inventions" should go to "war against the Earth," though in many ways they have. Perhaps he was also warning against just such harms, that we should use our tools and our intelligence carefully, responsibly. But he would have laughed at the modern extreme version of the Precautionary Principle idea proposed by more ardent classical environmentalists, the idea that because those tools might do harm, that we reject them outright for even the most speculative harm they might do. Were Bacon around now, the father of the scientific method would mock the Back to the Garden naïveté of those who more and more think of science and its inventions as threats, monstrous Dr. Frankenstein creations only to be feared and rejected. And he would surely note the hypocrisy of those who say that our salvation lies in our power to reason, and yet who reject many of the products of that power because they conflict with the Back to the Garden ideal.
There are, of course, all sorts of environmentalists, which broadly just means anyone concerned about the immoral and irrational damage humans are inflicting on the natural world. That’s most of us. Many recognize that human-made technologies, though they have been part of the problem, can and must be part of the solution. But the most strident environmental leaders (and many of the most popular) have less room for such compromise, and they are turning our shared concern for an injured Gaia into a sweeping Back to the Garden religion that goes way too far in demonizing the tools and products of modern life, tools that, for all the harms they have undeniably done, have also provided vast benefits, and which also can help us live in better balance with Gaia going forward.
There is no question that humans, and the biosphere we live in, are headed for an inevitable, nasty crash that will certainly largely be our fault. This crash is unavoidable, because of all of the processes we’ve already set in motion, and because the instincts that subconsciously compel most of our behavior are far more powerful than our purposeful conscious reasoning. Our modern advanced brain is not powerful enough to overcome the ancient animal we mostly remain.
But as Stewart Brand has so pithily put it when laying out the goal of his counter-culture Whole Earth Magazine and Catalog in 1968:
We are as Gods, and we might as well get good at it.
We are smart. We do have remarkable technological tools. But we can only apply those tools if we use our intelligence to recognize that we are a part of nature, and humbly accept that we are not so smart that we are apart from it. We have to be more modest about the limits to human reason and get beyond the hubris of how special we think we are. If we are smart enough to do that, then we might see past the naive Back to the Garden faith that a pre-human Nature is the ideal and only true Nature, and see how the poetic appeal of a return to Eden blinds us from achieving effective solutions to the terrible harm we continue to cause.
- - - - -
I am 40 feet below the surface of the South Pacific off the island of Peleliu, staring at a cuttlefish that does not seem happy at my attention. It is flashing iridescent colors along its body, spreading its tentacles toward me menacingly, and the jaws of its beak are open in what is clearly a “DO NOT COME ANY CLOSER” pose. How engrossing it is to be one-on-one with this remarkable and clearly sentient, intelligent creature, a species possibly older than fish or sharks with abilities science has only begun to fathom. Focused on each other, the connection between us feels like a gift.
A dark thought runs through me, that the damage humans are doing to the oceans may doom this remarkable being. But then I remember those pictures our dive master had shown us of this site from 10 years ago. The coral was white, skeletal, seemingly bleached dead by El Nino warming in the Pacific. There were no cuttlefish, no fish at all. A decade later it’s a multi-colored, vibrant garden of life, a resilient complex ecosystem blithely going about its natural business, heedless (except for the cuttlefish) to the invader who needs bulky, awkward, risky technology to even be in this foreign environment, where the cuttlefish is totally at home.
And as this all goes through my mind, the cuttlefish, apparently satisfied that I am no longer a threat, slowly turns so his tail is to my face and, rather smugly it seems, swims casually away and fades into the depths.
Garden of Eden art by Jan Brueghel de Oude, Peter Paul Rubens via Wikipedia
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Shunk et al.<p>Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.</p><p>Still, the researchers weren't sure whether <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v1.full.pdf" target="_blank">study published on the preprint server bioRxiv</a>, told <a href="https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/fungus-that-eats-radiation-could-be-cosmic-ray-shield" target="_blank">SYFY WIRE</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."</p>
International Space Station
NASA<p>To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.</p>
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."