90 years on this big chunk of dirt has allowed me to witness a plethora of amazing things. The following blog points out that we’ve screwed up our share of things, and there is lots of bad stuff going on as we speak, but we have also done a lot of good stuff. I have consistently underestimated the ability of my fellow men and women to do amazing things, but I am even more impressed with this latest generation. They seem eager to involve themselves in politics and environmental activism, which leaves me hopeful that they may do a better job of listening to what Mother Nature tells us.
Thousands of scientists worldwide devote their lives in search of such understanding. There certainly will be more pandemics and other crises to come, and an understanding of nature is our only hope for defense or prevention. My hope is that these bright young souls will learn from our mistakes, for we truly are all in this together. We have been honored guests on this planet for only a short time, and lack of respect for our earth mother could further shorten our stay. To have “dominion” over all these wondrous living things carries with it an awesome responsibility. We ignore it at our own risk. In this post, I hope to illustrate examples of how we humans have attempted to control Mother Nature and the consequences I’ve observed.
The Big Fox Hunt
My first exposure to humans trying to control Mother Nature was when I was 12 years old. Once upon a time (as the saying goes) , I was excited to be asked to participate in a fox hunt. This was not to be replete with trumpets, and people dressed in red jackets on horseback, but rather a bunch of serious good old boys in blue denim bib overalls and wampuses. The hunt was to be composed of a combination of fox and rabbit hunters. Granted, there were some who fit into both categories, but the strategies were very different and required different canine talents. The beagle was the breed of choice for rabbit hunters while fox hounds were much larger.
The idea of a fox hunt had originated with the rabbit hunters after a several year decline in the rabbit population of the county which they blamed on the red fox, the rabbit’s chief predator. The fox hunters were all for the operation. WWII was in full swing, the depression was over, there was full employment and much of clothing manufacturing capacity was used by the military, all of which conspired to make fur coats desirable. Consequently, fox pelt prices were at an all-time high. The strategy for this hunt was to recruit large numbers of bodies (even kids) to walk behind a long line of dogs with the thought that the foxes would be driven towards a line of hunters with guns. Since a large portion of the male population was off fighting the war, many of us kids were recruited for the big hunt.
The plan was never implemented. Not surprising, since due to the war, gasoline was rationed and ammunition for hunting was not available. Nevertheless, the plan was a small example of man’s attempt to intervene into the much more comprehensive plan which had been devised by nature, or God if you will, long before Adam and Eve arrived on the scene.
Mother Nature fixed the Rabbit Problem
However, in this instance without human intervention, it did not take too many years for the rabbit population to rebound and the fox hunters to complain that their dogs couldn’t even “catch a scent.” Apparently, since the fox’s natural predators in our area had long since been deposed by the world’s top predator (humans), the fox population grew rapidly, soon overwhelming the rabbits. With their favorite meal no longer available, the foxes either moved on, or starved, and the rabbits rebounded without our help. Now that fur coats are no longer fashionable, rabbits are scarce, and foxes which were formerly rarely seen, are active scavengers in urban areas.
It seems as if the predator system worked well for a few million years until the new top dog came along, and set out to screw it up.
The Apex Predator
About 200,000 years ago humans evolved to become the new apex predator, and the system of checks and balances was upended. This new kid on the block was not nearly so athletic, as his competitors, nor did he possess the acute sense of smell, vision or hearing as did most of his competitors, but his huge brain coupled with his upright posture allowed him to develop the manual dexterity necessary to make tools and weapons.
Those skills were honed to an extent beyond the imagining of our distant ancestors, and also allowed us to totally dominate the planet as per the Biblical injunction: Genesis 1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
There is little doubt that we have been compliant with the fruitful and multiply part, but negligent about “replenishing.” The World Wildlife Federation reports that in just the last 50 years we humans have been responsible for the extinction of 60% of the world’s population of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. [Source: https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/living-planet-report-2018 ] If the scripture is referring to the replenishment of the human population, no doubt we have done a good job and then some. Just during my time on this planet the population of the world has nearly quadrupled, standing now at nearly 8 billion. It is estimated to have been a paltry 5 million souls in 5.000 BC. [Source: www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/.]
Earth’s Population | Malthusians vs Cornucopians
In 1798, Thomas Malthus, an English economist and clergyman, warned that overpopulation would lead to world-wide starvation due to the limited ability of the earth to provide enough food [Link to “An Essay on the Principle of Population”]. Of course, his theory was later discarded by most as he failed to take into account the development of more efficient farming methods. Since his time, the population has increased 5 fold, 20% of the food grown in the U.S. is wasted, and although food shortages exist in some parts of the world, they are largely due to problems of distribution, wars, or climate change, yet there still remains debate between the so called “Malthusions” and the “Cornucopians” (futurists who believe progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by similarly continued advances in technology) as to the limits of the planet’s ability to support life as we know it. With the mechanization of much of agriculture, farming has become much less labor intensive, and large families, which were a cheap source of labor, have become expensive.
There are also now widely available and effective means of birth control which at first glance would lead one to believe the world’s population was declining, but increased longevity and a decrease in infant mortality have resulted in an explosive increase. Yet, the Cornucopians believe in a future in which we will see a decrease in the world’s population and that technology will triumph to keep our planet sustainable. Currently, the world population continues to increase but at a slower rate than previously. The UN predicts it will stabilize at around 11 billion by 2050, but such predictions have proved inaccurate in the past.
Some governments continue to take note of Malthusian principles and have attempted to regulate population growth by either encouraging or limiting it, usually with disastrous results. The most recent example is China where a one-child policy was adopted in the 1960s after a period of famines was felt to have been caused by overpopulation. Enforcement procedures were sometimes drastic with enforced sterilizations as a penalty for non-compliance. The policy proved to be too successful as the slowed birth rate coupled with increased longevity has resulted in too many retirees, and a shortage of workers to support them. The country has now initiated policies designed to increase the birthrate, which so far, have not been successful. Contrasting, but equally draconian efforts by the communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausesca, to increase the population of his country in 1966, resulted in thousands of orphaned children that overwhelmed the orphanages of the country. Consequently, a generation of children were neglected as I described in a previous blog.
Malthus blamed much of the poverty and associated hunger of his day on hereditary factors setting the stage for development of eugenics in which governments initiated policies designed to limit population growth. In 1927, the Supreme Court led by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who famously said: “three generations of imbeciles is enough” approved forced sterilizations of the mentally disadvantaged, not our nation’s finest hour. A few years later, Hitler in his attempt to purify the “Aryan Race” decided it was much more efficient to simply execute those deemed “defective” and his gas chambers proved to be quite efficient in that regard. Although Malthus writings awakened awareness of potential problems in our environment, they also have demonstrated the dangers associated with social engineering gone awry.
Overpopulation and Pandemics
Scientists suggest that the overall human impact on the environment, due to overpopulation, with its accompanying overconsumption, pollution, and proliferation of technology, has pushed the planet into a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. A case can be made for overpopulation as a factor in many of the world’s geopolitical problems including wars, migrations, civil unrest, famine, and climate change to name a few, yet even in this global pandemic which threatens every life on the planet, little note is taken of how population density factors into this COVID-19 thing.
Pandemics have been around throughout recorded history. One study that analyzed the origins of 1415 diseases which infect humans, found that 62% originated via contact with animals. [Source: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2001.0888]. Indeed, the spate of epidemics we have experienced over the past few years, such as Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu, and COVID-19, etc., as well as the oft mentioned Spanish Flu of 1918, and bubonic plague are all said to be zoonotic diseases (meaning those that jump from animal to man). Even smallpox, the scourge that had figured in wars and other upheavals throughout history, and decimated native populations in the Americas, is felt to have jumped from a rodent flea to humans in Egypt 10,000 years ago. There are multiple factors that can lead to increased contact of wild animals with humans.
Humans & Wildlife
For example, I spent my early years hunting, fishing and roaming the hills where I now live without ever seeing a deer, but as I write this, there are five white tail deer grazing in my back yard and I live in a populated area. Deer are now considered a pest by many, especially farmers, who see their corn fields decimated. Naturalists are concerned about over population with its concomitant increase in Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), an illness that infects the brains of deer, moose, and elk, and is closely related to Mad Cow Disease. In an attempt to reduce the numbers, the legal limit per hunter was increased resulting in 184,465 legally killed deer in Ohio last year with little apparent effect. So far, there are no reports of CWD having jumped to humans, although we know of many examples of mutations in other microbes resulting in cross species vulnerabilities.
The increase in our local deer population is fueled largely by deforestation rather than what we see with most species, for deer are grazing animals and consequently do much better in open rather than densely wooded areas while with other species logging can totally destroy their habitat. There are multiple factors that put us in closer contact with wild animals due to infringement or destruction of their habitat or upsetting the normal balance of nature. We now see instances in which the reintroduction of predator species results in a healthier ecosystem, a practice which a few short years ago would have been seen as counterproductive. It has now become obvious that we humans did not possess the wisdom required for us to have: “dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Learning by our Mistakes
It is only by having screwed things up badly that we have begun to learn a little about how the whole thing works, but in putting this paper together I have been amazed to learn a bit about how it all fit together before we took charge, and began the process of exterminating species, and contaminating our soil, air, and water. We even managed to make the earth less hospitable to ourselves and all living things by messing up the climate. It required a lot of people to accomplish all that and as I mentioned previously, there are a lot of us. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, for we now know what needs to be done, and the only way for us to atone for our sins would be for all of us to work on putting it back together.
In the past, livestock farmers were well aware of the amount of pasture required for their herd and “culling the herd” via sending the less healthy or vigorous to the slaughter house was a regular practice. They are also aware of the increased susceptibility to disease that can result from over-crowding. The developers of factory farms find it more efficient to raise livestock in extremely crowded situations, and photos of hog farms show animals packed so tight they can barely move. This increases the risk of epidemic, yet these gallant entrepreneurs are not to be denied. They routinely add antibiotics to the feed, which many infectious disease experts suspect is a major cause of antibiotic disease resistance in humans, a good example of how our attempts to bypass nature’s rules cause even worse problems,
To date our only defense against the COVID-19 virus is so-called social distancing which could be more accurately referred to as asocial distancing and the use of a mask which also limits our non-verbal communications. Does that not speak to the possibility that our dense human habitats may contribute to our vulnerability to viruses? We humans have evolved into instinctually social or herd animals if you will, and herds of humans may now number into the millions.
We Are All In This Together
My research for this essay has shown me that we really are “all in this together” and I don’t mean just concerning the current pandemic. We are not only connected to our environment, we are an integral part of it. We are so interdependent that whatever happens to one species effects many others, and I am heartened to see that much research now focuses on ecosystems rather than individual plants animals or microorganisms. For example, such studies have resulted in a greater understanding of our symbiotic relationships that extends even to bacteria. Last evening, I watched a documentary on PBS about the rehabilitation of Yellowstone Park by the reintroduction of wolves. Their step by step exhibition of how the entire area benefited including animals, fish, birds and vegetation was remarkable. Other such experimental programs currently implemented in other areas of the world are reaching similar conclusions.
The question as to what is the optimum world population remains a subject of debate. It is clear that there is an inverse relationship between standards of living and population growth for we have witnessed populations decrease in those countries whose people become more affluent. Cornucopians present this as truth that overpopulation, if it exists, will be self-correcting while Malthusians point out that with affluence there is an increase in utilization of resources and acceleration of global warming, another damned if you do or damned if you don’t conundrum.
With the upper level predators such as wolves, coyotes, bears, bobcats, and eagles, etc., long gone via the efforts of the apex predator (us), the balance has been upset and many species have proliferated leaving them vulnerable to disease, as apparently happened with our deer population. With urbanization has come an increased interest in wild animals and urban sprawl has encroached on habitats. Many of the zoonotic illnesses are transmitted by bites of vectors, i.e., usually arthropods, such as fleas, ticks, or mosquitoes, or by direct contact with the body fluids of infected animals, as was the case with Ebola. Of course, such animals can be avoided, but bacteria and viruses have a genetic code that can spontaneously change. Such mutations may alter them in such a way that they may find a way to move from one human body to another, and when it does, an epidemic is on its way. The Center for Disease Control reports that 3 out of 4 emerging diseases happen this way as has the current pandemic. [Source: https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html ]
Measles & COVID-19
Back in the dark ages, when I was practicing family medicine, measles was an accepted part of life. Antibiotics, which had recently appeared on the scene, had proven to be worthless against viruses, and measles was largely accepted as the most communicable of all the infectious illnesses. Viruses were mysterious little buggers and as a matter of fact we had no idea as to what they looked like until the invention of the electron microscope in 1931. When this covid thing reared its ugly head, I was struck by its similarities to the measles virus. They both are spread by respiratory droplets, and are infectious before symptoms appear, two factors which conspire to make them highly communicable and very difficult to control, although, the covid 19 virus is obviously the more serious of the two.
If there is anything good about measles, it is the fact that people who contract it develop a lifetime immunity. Since nearly every old person like myself had it in childhood, it is classified as a childhood disease. It has been shown that if 70 to 80% of the population is immune to a communicable disease, its spread is limited. This phenomenon is referred to as herd immunity and is the latest very bad idea to come from the White House’s latest false prophet sycophant, a guy whose day job is reading x-rays. His plan is to allow the virus to infect everyone except for the elderly (I like that part) and immune compromised. One person predicted this would lead to 1.2 million deaths and totally overwhelm our hospitals’ ability to care for the sick. Sweden did initiate such a policy, which was disastrous, resulting in 10 times more deaths than had occurred in neighboring Denmark. In addition to those problems, it is not even clear how long immunity lasts after recovery, if at all.
Science Is Simply A Search for the Truth
As has occurred at other times in history this pandemic has brought the world to its knees although some countries have definitely done a better job at handling it than we have. For more that a half century we have been warned by the scientific community that pandemics were inevitable, and by not heeding them we now pay a price, yet we seem to have learned little for anti-science views persist. As previously mentioned in other blogs, science is simply a search for truth. It is a discipline that seeks to understand the marvelously complex mechanisms which operate our universe. It is not a religion, but the knowledge it provides can and should enhance the reverence of the faithful.
The Questions We Need to Ask
As is usually the case with studies of natural phenomena, this covid pandemic leaves us with more questions than answers. Are we really the apex predator or does this invisible particle which infects us deserve that title? Is this pandemic nature’s way of culling the herd? Is there an optimum level of population above which the system cannot function? Does our technology possess the power to undue the damage we have done to the world or perhaps a better question is do we have the will to do it? My Grandmother said: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. For years epidemiologists have warned us of the inevitability of pandemics. We have turned a blind eye to research on preventive efforts and now suffer the consequences. Let’s hope this one will be a wake up call.