Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Clean Water and Good Government

Water is a force of nature. When snow shuts down a city or rivers overflow their banks, we recognize the power of natural forces to overwhelm our human constructions. But most of the time, water is our friend. The presence of water is the indispensable condition for life on planet Earth. We not only need water, we are water. More than half of the human body is made up of water, and we need to keep replenishing ourselves to stay alive.

Maintaining proper levels of water is crucial for our human communities, too. We must have sufficient water for our crops, not too little and not too much, as we find out every spring when local farmers wait until the ground has the right amount of moisture for planting corn and soybeans. We must have adequate drinking water, properly purified and cleaned. Less crucial for life itself, but now an essential ingredient in civilized society, is water for bathing, laundry, cleaning, and all the other things we do at home that require water.

Because we can so easily turn a tap and get fresh, drinkable water, we rarely think about what we would do if this supply was no longer available. The great flood of 2011 in Jacksonville, and many other places in the Midwest, suddenly makes our dependence on readily available water obvious. Only about 14% of Americans, nearly all in rural communities, supply their own water through wells. Urban and suburban Americans are dependent on a public supply of water, which means on government.

The entry of local governments into the business of supplying clean water was made necessary by the 19th-century growth of cities. Ever larger sources of water had to be found which could meet the essential needs of expanding urban populations. As scientists discovered that water-borne germs caused outbreaks of disease, like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid, governments took on the additional responsibility of insuring the purity of public water. That meant creating sewage systems to remove human waste products of all types, keeping them separate from water supply systems.

Today we take all this for granted, except when unusual circumstances, such as the sudden and violent fits of Mother Nature, interrupt our regular supplies of water. Then we are reminded again of the significance of well-run government for our daily lives. Local governments manage water treatment plants, constantly test our water supplies, maintain a vast network of pipes to deliver water to each residence, and create and maintain sewage systems. State and federal authorities protect the nation’s water supply from pollution, and protect communities from floods by a long list of prevention measures.

None of these systems is perfect. But government is indispensable for keeping us supplied with water. Government got into the water supply business in the first place because no private enterprise was capable of harnessing the resources and taking into account the needs of the entire population. Private enterprise has been the most significant polluter of our nation’s rivers and lakes, and the underlying ground water. Private enterprise tries to make money from our need for water: bottled water, which is just somebody else’s tap water, originated in the profit motive. In emergencies, private enterprise and charitable organizations can offer some help, as has been the case in Jacksonville. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Anheuser-Busch have teamed up to dispense water here. But their efforts are just a drop in the bucket of what is needed, today and every day.

Supplying pure water is just one of many essential functions of governments that we all must fund with our taxes. Governments, representing all citizens, were created for just such common purposes. Our Revolutionary War heroes, the founders of our country in an era of sparse population, never thought about water supply. The Constitution does not mention water supply. Life has changed since then, and government has expanded to meet the ever-expanding needs of American society. Our founders’ intent was to create a system flexible enough to adapt to inevitable change. Our job is to maintain that system in good working order, so when we turn the tap, life-giving water flows freely.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 28, 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Saving Lives and Preserving Life

A few weeks ago, I wrote about cicadas as they were emerging, flying, singing, mating. Now so many of them are dead that they clog our pathways. Every time I am outside, I see dozens of dying cicadas, trying desperately to right themselves, to fly with damaged wings, or simply to escape the hot pavement beneath them. They’re done for.

Mass death always seems sad to me, even for insects I don’t like, but we are merely observing the nature of the cicada. At every stage of their eventful lives, many cicadas don’t make it. Females make dozens of nests by scratching into tree branches, each with a dozen or more eggs. I have been rustling my youngest trees to protect them from the scratches, and there are many more natural reasons why only a fraction of these eggs eventually hatch. Not all of the hatched nymphs fall into good locations where they can burrow into the ground. Not all those holes lead to live tree roots, from which the nymphs get their nourishment for their long residence underground. Not all of them manage to dig their way to the surface, properly shrug off their shell, harden their bodies and dry their wings, and take off for a few furious weeks of trying to create the next generation. In many cases, it’s not the fittest, but the luckiest.

Cicadas have no defense mechanisms at all, except to fly away. They offer no protection to their eggs, and most adults die before they hatch. Cicadas have evolved a system for creating and preserving life which depends entirely on quantity. That long evolutionary process happened before humans significantly altered the landscape, cutting the trees needed for egg-laying, making burrowing impossible in paved surfaces, and putting harsh chemicals underground. Yet the cicadas survive in unimaginable numbers.

A species which produces large numbers of eggs needs to do that because so few offspring eventually become adults. One of my biological colleagues has had remarkable success in propagating an orchid native only to Hawaii. That plant produces millions of seeds from its lovely flowers. Yet it struggles to preserve its life against the gradual expansion of human environmental change in its island habitat. Enormous quantity does not assure survival to any plant or animal species, as we alter the earth’s surface across the globe.

Mammals produce far fewer offspring, but still many more than will survive to adulthood. A female domestic dog or cat could theoretically produce dozens of cute little babies in a lifetime of breeding. Our social practices, including forcible sterilization and euthanasia of strays, keep those populations in check.

The most complex mammals, the primates, are at the other end of the natural spectrum from orchids or cicadas – apes and humans produce few babies and take extraordinary care of them until adulthood. Because gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees are now threatened in the world, we try to insure that every baby ape survives and thrives.

I wish American society was as determined to take the best care of all our human babies. Whether cities and states are ruled by Democrats or Republicans, self-identified as “pro-life” or not, too much human life is lost across America, in birthing rooms and in the years of childhood.

Among nations, the US ranks #33 in the number of children who survive to age 5, according to data from the UN and the CIA. Every year there are 7.8 child deaths per 1000 live births in the US. In South Korea, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Japan, there are fewer than 5. That difference means 10,000 American children die every year, who could be kept alive with better care.

I am amazed whenever the existence of social programs to keep our most vulnerable babies and children alive is decided by their price tag. I am amazed when people ignore the realities of child mortality in American society, which are common knowledge, and argue against all social programs funded by taxes.

MasterCard promotes itself with a series of inspired ads, comparing pricey things and priceless feelings. In our world of credit card debt spent for those things, why isn’t life itself priceless?

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 14, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Doctors and Science

Lately, I have been thinking about doctors, because I have recently been so dependent on their advice. My dentist, my eye doctor, and my chiropractor have all offered me expert opinions on my body and what I ought to do about it. Even though I am still quite healthy, doctors are much more important to me now than they were 20 years ago. For my parents’ generation, doctors become best friends, visited nearly every week, keeping people alive.

Doctors are scientists of the body, trained in the best science, expected to know the newest developments in their fields. Because they are scientists, they are both theoreticians and practitioners. When they talk with me, I hear them placing the knowledge they receive from others alongside years of experience. They adjust techniques and try out new medicines. I especially like when they explain to me how they came to their particular recommendations, which may be different from what I heard from other doctors in the past or what they themselves used to recommend. They rarely say that a particular outcome will inevitably follow a particular course of action. There are always uncertainties.

In the end, the most important decisions are always mine: do I get this operation? which medicine do I take? when do I go back for another visit? I know that their words are the most important factor, but I also recognize my responsibility and the range of choice I have.

We all make medical choices which reflect some influence of the scientific advice we get. When I needed a tooth capped, I had to choose between using gold or using porcelain. That wasn’t too difficult, especially since my dentist, Bill Weller, said that, in his experience, gold was better suited for that purpose over the long term. When my foggy lens with a cataract was replaced, I had to choose between a standard artificial lens or a newly developed and much more expensive lens that could act like a bifocal.

Choices about our daily routines, which should also be influenced by doctors’ expert opinions, often are not. For a long time, I have had cholesterol levels that are regarded by doctors as too high, and I have changed my diet, but I refuse to give up cheeses. My eye surgeon just recommended that I take two pills daily to reduce the risk of future degeneration in my eye. But I am reluctant to accept a daily regimen of pills that will continue for the rest of my life. The older people in my family use a daily tray of pills, and I am trying to delay the onset of daily pill-popping as long as possible. I recognize this is an emotional, rather than a rational response, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful for me.

Where my non-rational impulses and preferences conflict with scientific opinion, that’s exactly where I am less likely to follow expert advice. That is especially true when the science involves a healthy mixture of opinion, when a lower level of certainty allows me the wiggle-room to insert myself into the decision. If my doctor told me that I would definitely die 2 years earlier if I didn’t give up the cheese, I’m sure my generous consumption of cheddar, Parmesan, blue, Swiss, and all the other delicious inventions of dairy farmers (you can see how hard this is for me) would decline significantly.

In my opinion that is the central problem with the public acceptance of global warming. Little about global warming is certain, except that it has been occurring for a century and that doing anything about it will be very expensive. Its causes, future effects, and thus the actions we should take, are all properly expressed with probability and uncertainty. Thus other elements of our thinking intrude more insistently: political preferences, attitudes toward government programs, and beliefs about the “free market”.

We are more susceptible to lone but loud voices which happen to match our emotional preferences, to non-experts who say the experts are all wrong. We are less likely to see self-interest, including our own, in seemingly reasonable arguments. We are more easily convinced that “wait-and-see” is the best choice.

All of these responses are fundamentally different from the way we treat the scientific opinions of our doctors. Their science is no less tinged with uncertainty and probability. The difference is that they are talking about our health, today or tomorrow. And as we get older and more mature, we are more likely to take their advice. When it comes to global warming, thus far the public is like a teenager who hears that tanning booths will produce skin cancer much later in life: I’ll worry about that later.

Our planet is sick now. If we wait too long, the disease may be incurable.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 7, 2011