Thursday 27 Oct 2016

Global This & That
Sjef Frenken

“So what do you think about global warming,” asked Jack.

I said “Like most people, I’m not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion.”

“How do you mean,” said Jack.

“Simple,” I said, “For one thing, I’m not a scientist, and for another, I’m not educated enough to assess any scientific studies or arguments done by scientists in that area. All I know is that the group of scientists who have a consensus that there is a global warming trend is bigger than the group of scientists who have an opposing view.”

“Did you do an actual count?” asked Jack.

I said “No, but that’s the overall impression I’m left with. But there are a couple of things that buttress my faith in the global-warming group. Faith, I want to point out, not necessarily reason. For instance I have a nasty suspicion that the arguments against global warming tend to come from spokesmen for the industries that are accused of contributing to it – oil companies and car makers for instance. Besides, I can’t believe that the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants we have been belching into the atmosphere for the past century  have had no effect on the environment. But whether the annual figures of increases in temperature of sea and earth describe a random blip of a few decades, or a major trend over a few centuries or millennia, is something I’m not in a position to assess.”

“Do you buy Al Gore’s argument of the ‘hockey stick’ trend?”

I said “I don’t know. What bothers me a lot more, however is that the argument over global warming is  a bit of a smoke-screen that’s obscuring an even more pressing problem: global poisoning.”

“What does global poisoning have to do with global warming?” asked Jack.

I said “global poisoning, for me, is the seven-eighths of the environmental iceberg that isn’t much talked about. Pollution of the air we breathe, the greenhouse effect due to carbon dioxide, may result in global warming. This could have a drastic effect on climate, on agriculture, on the dispersal of populations, what have you, but it doesn’t address a more fundamental issue of pollution.”

“What’s that?”

“That we are at far greater risk of killing ourselves by global poisoning than by global warming. True, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air, to say nothing about all the other airborne pollutants, probably have a deleterious effect on our health …”

“…deleterious? …” interjected Jack.

“ Yes,” I said.

“Deleterious?” asked Jack again, “what in hell does ‘deleterious’ mean.”

I said “bad, harmful”.

“So why didn’t you say ‘bad’ or ‘harmful.”

I said ‘because that’s the word that popped up when I needed that kind of a word. If I’d known you were going to stumble over it, I would have taken a minute or two to think of a shorter one. Next time I use an imperspicuous word, just wrap my knuckles.”

“.. what does imper…”

I said “’obscure, abstruse’.  Look, I was just pulling one of your lower ambulating extremities. Can we get back to the topic at hand?”

Jack said “which was…?”

“Global poisoning. Think of all the stuff we let escape into the atmosphere: the air fresheners, the aerosol or spray cleaning fluids, the dry cleaning stuff, the evaporating mineral spirits… And then all the medications that pass through us and wind up in our rivers and oceans. Think of all the additives to our food … have you looked at the list of ingredients of even the most common foods lately? And all the newly invented solutions to one problem that cause interference with many more. How many people had a peanut allergy in the 1940s? And why do you think it is such a problem nowadays that schools won’t even allow peanut butter sandwiches in the cafeterias. Why do you think so many more people have one and more allergies?”

“Are you suggesting that we should stop inventing new medicines, new products?”

“Not necessarily. But I think our industries are more concerned with making money than with the welfare of their customers in the long run. No doubt there are lots of people working to solve problems relating to health. Have you even seen the movie “First do no harm” with Meryl Streep? It’s based on a real case, in which doctors try to treat a child’s ailment with drugs. Each drug has a side-effect, for which another drug is prescribed, which causes another side-effect, and so on. There is a solution at the end, and it will come as a surprise.”

“Tell me,” said Jack.

“No,” I said. “Borrow the movie and see for yourself.”

“The way I see it, progress is coming at us at an ever increasing speed. Two hundred years ago any new invention in medicine, for instance, would have decades of limited application, and any ill effects would have been discovered well before the medicine would have been widely distributed. Nowadays we have trials for medicine, but as the thalidomide disaster in the 50s showed, trials don’t show the whole story. That didn’t show up until nine months after when the malformed babies showed up. And there’s a lot of pressure on both pharmaceutical companies as well as the government agencies overseeing these trials, to bring new medications to market to solve serious problems. We want instant solutions, and we want them yesterday.”

“You don’t sound very optimistic,” said Jack.

I said “I’m not. At least not for humanity, although I’m an optimist personally. I’m not sure whether science in the long run is making things better for mankind; maybe only more complex. For every silver lining there’s a cloud. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. My faith in science and progress in two nutshells. And if it makes you feel any better, remember that Time and Newsweek in the mid-70s both did a survey of scientific thinking and concluded that the weight of evidence was that we were heading into a new Ice Age.”

I there is hope,” said Jack with a smile.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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