Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Big C

Climate Change. There are a great many things I could say about Climate Change, but today I want to make a pretty simple point about the likely health effects of Climate Change: They won't be good.

It's also common in discussions of Climate Change to talk about the effects on large systems, like cities or business sectors, or on large groups of people, sometimes even the entire population of entire countries. Such talk, I worry, can make your eyes glaze over, like trying to talk about whether the war cost one or three trillion dollars. Who can even know the difference? And yet, the difference most certainly matters.

So I'm not going to focus on large systems or groups. Most assuredly, they'll come up incidentally, but really I'm just going to talk about myself, what I fear will be the impact on me personally. But really you should know I'm not just talking about me, or meaning to say my situation is more important. I'm just using my situation because I know it best. There will be many like me. If you like, as you read along, substitute the name of someone near and dear to you, and substitute their situation. If you find a way to put a personal face to Climate Change, I'll have achieved my goal today.

Cancer is another aspect of it for me. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year. I was fortunate to be covered by decent health care. Just lucky. There was a gap some years back where I could not afford health insurance and, had the cancer happened then, it might have ended differently. Fortunately, I was beyond that rough economic time and evaded what might have otherwise been a death sentence. Others have been less fortunate, which upsets me greatly. We should have universal health care.

I didn't write about my cancer at the time it was happening. Well, I did, but only indirectly. I wrote a post about roller coasters the night before I went into surgery as a metaphorical way of expressing how out of control I felt. Everything was on autopilot, and I was plenty scared. But at the time I didn't want to acknowledge the situation publicly. In fact, this article is my first time writing about it in a web-accessible location.

Frankly, I'd really rather have such matters remain private. It's a curious thing about politics. I've been a strong advocate of privacy rights for all of my adult life. My personal web page begins with an essay talking about the separation between my public and private persona, and how I don't like volunteering personal information to the public eye. There are too many ways to abuse it. There are a lot of things about me that are not the world's business and that ought not be fodder for people at search engines to browse or for marketeers to slice and dice for sale.

Citizen participation in a democracy sometimes requires otherwise, however. It's no one's business what my religious beliefs are, what I think of abortion or being gay, or how my family chooses to deal with end-of-life issues. Yet modern American politics is typified by invasive meddling in areas such as these, and so I find myself joining those who feel the urge to stand up and be counted on such important matters, even at the sometimes risk of having what should be our private lives out on display. I don't like it at all. But I see no way around it.

To speak of my medical position is scary because it's possible the information can be used against me. Of course, my medical situation comes as no surprise to insurance companies which can force me to disclose my medical history as a condition of coverage. At least, thanks to recent legislation, they can no longer exclude me for having a pre-existing condition. But they can still raise my rates, or those of an employer who has me in their “pool.” So an employer at some point in the future may quietly let me go or another may fail to hire me, never saying the reason. Who can know? What I do know is that insurance companies pay people to figure out clever ways to get around government restrictions and back to business as usual.

I guess that's why I read every day in the news that voters are ready to vote the Republicans back in. I guess voters think the protections we have now are too strong, and they'd rather go back to a time when the insurance companies weren't screaming in pain from the thumbscrews to which we consumers have put them.

Commerce is also a key component in my story. Adam Smith's much-touted “unseen hand” of capitalism has seen fit to decide that we should not make things locally any more, you see. We buy them from elsewhere. Who knows where? We assume the fuel will continue to flow, and flow cheaply, to get things from here to there. We assume there won't be floods intervening. We assume there won't be disease that causes us to restrict travel. We assume a great many things. And because of those assumptions, we're comfortable believing that commerce will just continue to function reliably no matter what.

And as long as it does, I'm probably fine. Or as fine as one gets having had a recent cancer. There are no guarantees. A highly competent surgeon removed my thyroid and with it the cancer. So I'm ahead of the game in that regard. I can't complain. I probably had more problems fighting the provider of my short term disability coverage than the cancer itself. At least with the cancer I had skilled professionals acting as my advocate. With the insurance company, it was the other way around. But I persevered in spite of administrative obstacles, and subsequent tests have so far shown me all clear. Odds are that I'll die of something else, not thyroid cancer. Of course, I still have to manage life without a thyroid, but that's mostly a routine matter in modern society. I just take some pills every day, which I can always get from the local pharmacy. Always. No matter what.

And that brings me back to Climate Change. It threatens us all in so many ways. The water level might rise. There might be more and stronger storms. The food supply is certainly in danger. If that falters, there could be famines, even wars. Any of those things could affect me, but I don't dwell on them a lot, at least not in the obvious way. But all of these problems have something in common, and that's where my mind often goes: Even in mild form, they can disrupt the normal flow of society.

Carrying capacity of the planet figures in here, too. It's defined by Wikipedia as “the population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” I've had many debates with people about what that number is. I agree with those who think we're already there. I've heard others suggest that carrying capacity is not a number but a function of technology—that as technology improves, so will carrying capacity. I don't agree. Hanging our hopes on technology is dangerous because if technology ever fails us, we will suddenly and “unexpectedly” find ourselves with far less ability to sustain ourselves than we thought we had. It's not written in stone that technology will get ever better and more accessible.

Ask someone who's been through a hurricane or a flood and has had to back up and start over. The march of increasing technology is more variable than we sometimes allow for. The temptation may be to dismiss such things as “local effects,” but there can be global disruptions. Peak oil and the looming shortage of rare earth elements will have profound effects on the sustainability of present technology. And Climate Change is affecting food supplies in the ocean and even on land, as Russian droughts have caused a global wheat shortage. We've also built a society that relies on global assembly of goods; things are not made in one place any more. If transportation becomes suddenly expensive or inaccessible, that's a problem that can be highly disruptive.

When the stock market crashed, we found suddenly that we had been overleveraged. People who thought they were making enough money or spending it in the right places came to realize that they had based these thoughts on assumptions that the world would always be precisely as it was, only always better. Suddenly they realized how fragile this assumption was and how little prepared they were for deviation. Climate Change is going to be a rude awakening that we have spent our technology enabling spectacles rather than increasing basic robustness. I think we'll find that this is what carrying capacity is really about—not how are we living in normal times, but how capable are we of surviving exceptional times, of dodging the global extinction events that have taken down the dominant species of past eras. Do we have good plans for emergencies? I look at events like the Katrina hurricane and shudder.

Calamity, you see, has this very personal aspect in my mind. If the complex engine of our society's continues on track, if commerce continues without interruption, I'll probably continue to have access to the pills that compensate for my missing thyroid. My most personal fear isn't all those big things—the sea level rise, the storms, the fires, the pests, the diseases, the famines, the wars. If those problems happen, we all have to fight them. I won't be alone.

It may seem silly, but I just worry the drug companies won't make my pills any more. Or they'll make them, but the free market won't find enough value in getting them to my town, especially in an emergency. I'm dependent on what feels like a Rube Goldberg mechanism to get them from wherever they come from into my hands. If that breaks down—if the stores close, or can't get stock—I worry no one will notice. It's such a small thing that I fear it will be overlooked. I'd love to stock an emergency supply, but my doctor has to prescribe only what I need, and the insurance companies work to prevent my buying pills ahead of when I need them. Talk about death panels. They try to placate me by noting the pills don't have a long shelf life. Or they mention I can buy a 90-day supply instead of a 30-day supply. But, 30-day or 90-day, they still make me burn that supply down to almost zero before I can get more.

So I obsess about what may seem to others as a comparatively mild risk of Climate Change—about the mere interruption of business as usual. It's not the biggest effect one could imagine. But it's how I personalize it. Your circumstances being different, you'll probably personalize it differently. That's okay. Just please do try, once in a while, to think of Climate Change not just as a global phenomenon, but as something more local, tangible, and personal. After all, Climate Change won't just affect the future of our species and perhaps of all life on Earth, but it will also, as part of that, affect you and me personally.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published September 14, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. I have reproduced the article here, but to read the original discussion, you'll need to click through to the snapshot created by the Wayback Machine.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, climate change, cancer, citizen participation, convergence, carrying capacity, calamity, catastrophe, personal, personalize, supply chain, leverage, over-leveraged, stock market, crash, medication, drugs, supplies, hurricane, drought, war, disruption, society, capitalism, planning, population, overpopulation, zpg, health insurance, health care, health, bad for your health

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