Perhaps our species will decide before it is entirely too late to stop soiling our nest - although that’s far from clear.
Perhaps we will decide to stop ravaging and blighting the only planet we will ever call home while it remains hospitable to our kind. With an all-time-high of nearly 70 degrees F recorded in Antarctica, and all the burgeoning mayhem that implies - that is, alas, as unsettled as it is urgent.
But let us hope that we may yet act on hope, muster the better angels of our nature, and stick around a while. Assuming we do, there is a chance, depending on your age, that you might get to space. Not to live- just to visit. And if not you, then your kids.
Commercial space flight is already available, just far from routine and far from affordable. If we survive to advance our technologies as our ingenuity clearly allows, it would likely become both, and visits to the moon or other relatively proximal neighbors of our solar system might migrate from the realm of science fiction into common human experience. We won’t be getting to Arrokoth any time soon, but Mars might happen.
Let’s fantasize for now that it does happen. You get the chance to visit space, and just like on a cruise down here you get a menu of optional activities. Among them is a space walk. Will you wear the temperature regulating, oxygen providing, state-of-the-science space suit- or opt out of that, and take your chances in that cold, dark void buck naked?
I ask, because your answer relates in ways you may not think to coronavirus. And, for that matter, whatever pandemic comes along next.
First- we have the issue of science, and the respect it warrants, but all too often doesn’t get.
Let’s be clear- using social media to disparage science is like flying a plane with one of those great banners behind it, as seen from the beach, that says: “if humans were meant to fly, they’d have been born with wings!” See the problem? Using a plane to throw shade at technology-based-flying doesn’t, well…fly. It is hypocrisy, at altitude.
So, too, the daily reliance on science-based-technologies that make it possible for you to read this, to tell me why science can’t be trusted. Those using the products of science daily to broadcast disdain for conclusions of science they find inconvenient, or at odds with their favored ideologue’s conspiracy theory are, forgive me, perpetrating both hypocrisy and absurdity. It’s like using a metaphor to repudiate poetry (You say pish-posh; and I, posh-pish! Poety is as useful as a bike… For my fish!).
OK, I admit it- beat that one to death; moving on.
The second issue is the benighted view that Nature will nurture us, no help required. If you buy it, you are being duped.
There is a specific anti-vaccine argument that we should simply rely on nature to do all that is good and right in fortifying our immunity and protecting us from pathogens. But that leads back to your buck-naked space walk. It’s not natural for us to go to space, or the depths of the ocean; we engineered that opportunity, and must rely on engineered protections to take advantage of them. We are not relying on nature to nurture our bodies when we fly; we are relying on engineered approaches to cabin pressure and oxygenation.
Exactly so, vaccination. There is nothing natural about a world of 8 billion Homo sapiens living mostly in dense population centers. There is nothing natural about our disruptions of ecosystems. There is nothing natural about the ultra processed foods that disrupt the microbiome, an ecosystem within. These, too, are engineered- a product first of agriculture, then civilization, and then what we euphemistically call “progress.” The capacity for pandemics to emerge in these unnatural circumstances dates back to the Dark Ages, but not to the Stone Age. This is a vulnerability of our own devising.
Vaccines are to the infectious disease threats of the modern world what a space suit is to the threat of space.
Nature is wondrous, but not benevolent. A sunrise is natural. So is botulinum toxin and cobra venom.
The coronavirus pandemic is already upon us; prevention is no longer an option. The best any of us can do now is stay informed, stay on guard, keep calm, and carry on.
But we can do far better about the next pandemic, and let’s be clear: absent better behavior by the body politic, there will surely be a next, and a next, and a next. We can be forewarned, and thus forearmed- addressing root causes, from broken links in food chains, to ecosystem disruptions, to disregard for science and mass misinformation campaigns.
The best way to predict a pandemic-free future is to create it. Pick up your “I love #nature AND respect #science” lapel pin at the door. Dupes and hypocrites…need not apply.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.