So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

The Eccentric Lipidologist Revealed

What’s a lipidologist? Well, immediately we can see that the term’s Latin roots indicate that a lipidologist is someone who studies lipids. Ah, lipids: the dreaded cholesterol, et al. That seemed simple enough. A friend told me that a lipidologist practiced in Santa Fe, the only one in the whole state of New Mexico.

Okay, it’s a small state, population around 2 million, about half that of the city of Los Angeles, California. Only about 400 lipidologists work in the entire U.S. Why are they so rare? After all, blood lipids are a big deal these days. Interestingly, there is very little information in Wikipedia’s entry on Lipidology.

Despite its simple bad reputation, cholesterol is far more complicated than a mere matter of suppressing “bad” cholesterol and supporting “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. The drug companies have worked hard to popularize the idea that cholesterol is “bad.” We produce cholesterol in the liver and we ingest it in the food we eat.

So, why do they cast cholesterol in such a bad light? Think drug company profits. I won’t get into the complex disputes over the efficacy and dangers of statin drugs in attempting to control cholesterol in the bloodstream. Or the role statins play in minimizing the risk of plaque building up in the coronary arteries. Suffice it to say, it is not all science.

artery.crossectionPicture to the left is a  Micrograph of an artery that supplies the heart showing significant atherosclerosis and marked luminal narrowing. Tissue has been stained using Masson’s trichrome. As Dr. M. explained, old plaque is scar tissue, and may not necessarily cause such blockage. High performance on a stress test indicates no blockage of cornonary arteries. Unlike new plaque, old plaque does not flake off, risking heart attack or stroke, unlike new plaque. However, both contain calcium, so measures of plaque do not distinguish between the two. So, you can have a very high score for plaque, pass the stress test indicating no blockage, and have low risk. Yet most cardiologists don’t make such distinctions; they just prescribe statins. If my arteries looked like the one in the picture here, I could not have passed the stress test with ease, as I did.

Dr. M. occupies a modest office in the local cluster of medical practices near the only hospital in Santa Fe. When I went to see him, he seemed in no hurry and spent an hour and a half with me. We had a very informative (for me) conversation about heart disease, medical practice, and the flaws of scientific practice in medicine in the U.S., where so many decisions are controlled by the insurance companies and where medical practices are dominated by the drug companies – otherwise known as “Big Pharma.”

When Dr. M. described the complex of bio-chemical, genetic, environmental, and behavioral elements that are involved with the multiple variable factors in the way cholesterol acts, I was impressed. No cardiologist had ever mentioned any of this stuff to me. It had always been a simple, “if your LDL is too high, take [the latest statin drug].” End of story.

The practice of medicine is too often a high-volume assembly-line operation that executes the “standard of care” in conformity to the specifications of Big Pharma and the medical insurance industry. Dr. M. does not play that game. He and a few other practicing medical scientists carefully measure the complex of interacting factors that may be at play in each individual and adjust treatments based on re-testing of bio-chemical and genetic factors and patient characteristics. Such doctors epitomize the scientific practice of medicine.

Medicine, it seems to me, should involve the scientific study and practice of treatments, traditional as well as modern, of potential benefit to patients. It requires carefully testing the efficacy of each treatment for a particular problem and adjusting treatment to the conditions of the individual patient. It is far more labor intensive than simple prescribing pills in accordance with the “standard of care.” I know only one lipidologist, but if he is representative of others in the specialty, then lipidology represents the best practices in medicine.

Lipidology is to the “standard of care” in cardiology as prostate oncology is to the “standard of care” among urologists, who are surgeons.

The “Standard of Care” and Facts of Life

It had been a shock to be told a few years ago that I had so much plaque in my coronary arteries that I was in imminent danger of a heart attack or stroke. The cardiologist told me that I must immediately follow the protocols of the “standard of care” in cardiology and begin a course of treatment using a strong statin drug or risk the grave consequences of the failure to do so, that’s all. “Stat!” Crestor was the latest highly promoted statin, widely prescribed around the time doctors began recommending statins as “preventive” treatments for suppressing the dreaded cholesterol.

Yet, I still had questions. Why, as I mentioned previously, had I performed so well on the standard stress test? I had walked the accelerating tread-mill, climbing its increasing incline, while monitored by multiple instruments tied to me by a dozen wired sensors. I had done fine; no anomalies whatsoever. And, why had the multiple imaging methods shown no arterial blockage at all? The answer: “you’re lucky.” It was assumed that ‘so far’ the dreaded plaque was so evenly spaced that blockage had not occurred – an unlikely scenario, it seemed to me.

Now isn’t this just the typical thing a man is likely to encounter in his mid-seventies? Medical challenges abound, as do anomalous events. We don’t usually expect what we don’t want to happen.

We take our Vizsla puppy to a nearby dog park every day because she has so much energy. By nature she is a major runner and loves to play with the other dogs. Most of the dog owners there are retired too. As the dogs run and play, we sit around and chat – no, we don’t run and play, we’re not pups anymore. I’ve noticed that conversation often turns from politics to health issues. Experiences with failed diagnoses, spouse’s failing health, our own, etc., are routine. Various “alternative” health practices are a common topic of conversation. “I hate doctors,” is often heard.

But the dog park conversations were not the source of my hint of another approach to what is commonly called cardiology. Apparently, there is more to it than meets the cardiologist’s eye. One friend, a retired obstetrician, told me that he had been seeing a “lipidologist,” who had an approach to cholesterol, plaque, and heart disease in general, unlike that of the cardiologists. “I get thousands of dollars worth of advanced lab testing, and it is all covered by Medicare or is written off by the lab as part of their research.” My ears perked up. I’m always looking for some good science in medicine as an antidote to the stagnation of the “standard of care.”

Another friend who is a consummate researcher and whose wife was doing well despite having been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer metastasized to her brain four years before, recommended that I see the same lipidologist my other friend had mentioned. This friend had been tracking all the latest clinical trials of new experimental cancer treatments and jumping through all the hoops to get his wife into the most efficacious ones. Cancer treatment techniques are fast approaching the ability to target specific cell mutations and kill only cancer cells. If he and his wife had simply listened to the “authority” of the local oncologist and gone with the “standard of care,” (chemotherapy and radiation) I am convinced that she would have died years before she did. Even the latest treatments cannot stop some cancers. But many diseases characteristic of aging can be prevented, moderated, or delayed by wise choices, which have little to do with the “standard of care.”

Next time: the Mad Jubilado encounters the Eccentric Lipidologist.

Seeking Sanity in Science within the Medical Establishment

About ten years after being diagnosed with a non-aggressive prostate cancer and narrowly escaping the surgeon’s knife by finding a real prostate oncologist who shared all the treatment alternatives with me, then undergoing non-invasive yet pretty darn effective treatment, something entirely unrelated happened, or so it seemed.

Self-Serving Medical Practice

I recall the urologist who had diagnosed the cancer with strong distain. He was a surgeon and had glibly said, “Don’t worry, it’s not that aggressive; give me a call and we can schedule surgery in the next couple of weeks.” His conflict of interest coincided with a complete lack of objectivity as well as indifference to the risks for the patient – me. He failed even to mention alternatives to surgery. I was lucky to find a prostate oncologist, escape the knife, and find an effective non-invasive treatment.

Then, once again, a decade after that narrow escape from unnecessary surgery, by finding the right information and dodging routine medical practice – the so-called “standard of care” – I was able to choose a better path than passive acceptance of self-serving medical “authority” would have allowed.

After a few years living in Northern New Mexico, what had been rather ordinary springtime allergies gradually morphed into full-blown year-round allergy symptoms. I was tested, and sure enough, I had become allergic to most grass and tree pollens in the area. After about four years of weekly allergy shots, my symptoms seemed moderately reduced, but far from eliminated. Then, following a particularly strong winter flu, I sustained a major sinus infection. My sinuses had become almost fully blocked. Sinus surgery followed; the result was wonderful. I was breathing clearly through my nose for the first time in years. And my allergy symptoms were reduced to occasional minor irritations.

The Arrogance of Authority

However, during the pre-op testing, EEG and EKG measures revealed a small heart valve anomaly. Of course, nobody tells you why you are getting extra tests or what the findings are. Finally, after the pre-op physician’s assistant sent me for a full abdominal ultrasound in search of a non-existent aneurysm, she scheduled me to see a cardiologist. “I don’t know why they did the ultrasound; maybe they thought you had an aneurism. But the good news is, you don’t,” said the cardiologist standing over me with a smug air of authority. He said the heart valve anomaly was minor and simply should be checked once a year. If it didn’t change, no problem.

But the cardiologist insisted that I begin taking Lipitor to keep my cholesterol numbers below their slightly elevated level. When I began to inquire about the “side effects” of statin drugs, he became indignant. “I’ve heard all those arguments. You need to take it to prevent more plaque buildup in your coronary arteries to prevent a heart attack or stroke.” He thereupon wrote a prescription for a strong dose of the generic form – Lipitor’s brand-name patent had expired. The man was over-the-top arrogant. To discuss a patient’s concern was apparently below his self-defined authoritarian dignity. I resolved to never see him again.

I was more concerned about the heart valve anomaly and didn’t like what I knew about statin drugs. So, I decided to visit the cardiologist in Beverly Hills that my oncologist had sent me to for a checkup and stress test over a decade before. He was a very bright guy, affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and clearly part of what I would call the “high-end” medical establishment.  Back then I’d had stress tests and imaging a year apart and the year of regular gym workouts with a trainer in the interim had made the initially difficult stress test easy. All clear back then.

Knowledge Overcomes “Standard of Care”

“Oh, we saw that heart-valve anomaly ten years ago; it’s nothing to worry about.” He reported that I’d done perfectly on the stress test. “But you are off the charts on your arterial plaque. You must begin strong doses of Crestor immediately.” He gave me a handful of samples, insisting that I was in serious danger, based on such a strong score on arterial plaque. I did wonder why, if it was so bad, I had performed perfectly on the stress test and the imaging showed no obstructions at all.

Well, as it turned out with further research on my part and consulting with a lipidologist, my puzzlement with the inconsistency between the stress test and the “plaque score,” was well founded. Things were not as they seemed to the high-end cardiologist. So, next time I will report, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”

What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

LA Sectional

LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?

Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.