Solve Climate Weirding

August 28th, 2018

Courtesy of Jerry McBride, Durango Herald

The summer isn’t over and already the fires have been terrible. What is causing all this trouble?

We had the huge 416 fire just north of Durango. Over 54,000 acres of our precious land has burnt in this fire alone, and there are many other wildfires near by. The 416 was terrible because it was so close to Durango, and because it was apparently started by an ember from our beloved Durango and Silverton Railroad.

Much of the American Southwest is experiencing exceptionally dry conditions. I recently discovered that there are four levels of drought, according to National Integrated Drought Information System (www.drought.gov). Much of the Southwest is at the worst level—Exceptional Drought. Unfortunately, we are not alone.

My wife and I recently traveled in Scotland and Norway. It was dry everywhere, with brown replacing the usual green. We didn’t need warm clothes the we packed since we were well inside the Arctic Circle. We wandered around the North Cape of Norway—the farthest north of that northern country—with only light jackets. 

Greece has suffered from disastrous fires, with the loss of many lives. Even northern Sweden is suffering from wildfires, which is very unusual. What is causing this hellish inferno? 

Of course, part of the answer is global climate change, which I like to call “global weirding” because different places get hit in different ways. While we are suffering from drought, the Northeast has been inundated with floods.

Almost all scientists agree that the climate is “weird” because of our use of fossil fuels. A recent article from Science supports this. The temperature changes in the north latitudes have been found to match the “fingerprint” of what computers predict, giving still more credence that climate change is anthropogenic. The article’s conclusion is: “Our results… provide powerful and novel evidence for a statistically significant human effect on Earth’s climate.” 

Not all people are affected by climate change equally. The far north is heating up faster than the tropics. Poor people also get the brunt of this weirding—they are more likely to work outside or to live in high density cities with the “heat island” effect. On the other hand, the fortunate among us can resort to air conditioning.  However, AC is counterproductive in the long run since most electricity is generated with fossil fuels.

What can be done to slow climate change? In the short run reducing carbon emissions will help. We donate to offset our carbon emissions to organizations such as American Forests. Having small families is the best way to reduce carbon emissions for the long run. That is because each additional person added to the population increases carbon emissions—the fewer people, the less greenhouse gases. If you look at all the future generations that are likely to follow a child born today, the effect of having one fewer child is huge.

Last year Fort Lewis College hosted a symposium on the science of climate change. We were hoping to have 200 people attend and were pleased that there were almost double that number! Most impressive was the teacher of a high school environmental studies class in Cortez who brought her students. Encouraged by such a good response to last year’s meeting, I am helping to organize a second event—“Climate Change Solutions”. It will be held at Fort Lewis College on October 30th. Please save the date!

There will be an amazing lineup of speakers, two of whom will decrease their carbon footprints by appearing digitally. Senator Michael Bennet’s staff—or perhaps the senator himself—will be there in person. The senator is not campaigning for office this year but will update us on what is happening in Washington and Colorado to slow climate change. We will have a return visit from philosopher Travis Rieder who gave a wonderful Lifelong Learning talk last year on the ethical imperative of small families. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist and member of the Nobel Prize winning International Panel on Climate Change. She and Dr. Karin Kirk, a member of the Yale Climate Connections, will be focusing on communicating about climate change.

Climate Change Solutions will have two sessions that Tuesday—one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Both will be open to anyone, but the afternoon is especially for students; we are arranging for 380 students from local high schools to attend. After all, it is they who will suffer the most from climate change. We won’t solve climate weirding at this symposium, but people can learn ways to slow it down.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

Repudiate the Practice of Eugenics

July 30th, 2018

Although Francis Galton started the modern eugenics movement in England in the 19th century, eugenics reached its peak in Germany during the Nazi era. Although sometimes well-meaning, eugenicists have done terrible things to human rights.

The history of eugenics actually goes back much further in history; apparently Plato advocated selective breeding of humans. Eugenicists advocate for higher rates of reproduction among people with desired traits and reduced rates or even sterilization of people with undesired traits.

Galton was the first person to study human variation in a systematic way. He observed that upper-class people tend to marry later and have smaller families, and suggested that eminent people be given incentives to have more children. He was concerned that small family size amongst the cognoscenti, along with poor people having lots of children, would cause a decrease in people’s mental ability.

Fortunately it seems as though Galton’s prediction has not come true. Over all, 

average intelligence is not decreasing significantly in the USA and actually may be increasing. This is a strike against eugenics.

In Germany the eugenic movement started in the late 19th century but didn’t become strong until 1927, when the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics was founded. One if its early directors, Eugen Fischer, wrote a long treatise titled “Principles of Human Heredity and Race Hygiene”. Hitler read and was inspired by this treatise.

In 1933, when the Nazis came into power, it became illegal to oppose eugenics and the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was passed. It established “eugenic courts” throughout Germany. Doctors were required to report “inferior” people (including people with retardation or mental illness, hereditary blindness or deafness, or other hereditary diseases). Cases were then presented to genetic courts, which would decide if the people should be sterilized without their consent. Hundreds of thousands of people were kept from having children because of this law.

As time went on, elimination of “undesirables” by sterilization was not sufficient. From 1939 to 1945 people with birth defects or in psychiatric hospitals were murdered by order of the Nazis. These murders were in addition to millions who were killed because of their ethnic heritage, religious beliefs or sexual orientation.

German history illustrated the worst of eugenics, but the USA was not immune from tromping on reproductive rights. Carrie Buck was a case in point. She was a young woman who was able to read and write. Nevertheless Carrie was labeled “feeble-minded of the lowest grade, moron class” when admitted to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in 1924. Three years later her tubes were tied, even though she wanted more children.

This was not an isolated case of a woman getting sterilized against her will; it was condoned by the Supreme Court of the United States. Ms. Buck was a test case brought to the Supreme Court to support eugenic sterilization. It appears that a “guinea pig” was needed and Buck was chosen because she was poor and had had a child out of wedlock (after being raped), despite being of normal intelligence.

Unfortunately, Carrie Buck was one of thousands of American women and men who were sterilized in the past without their consent. For instance, records from California institutions show that 20,000 people were approved for sterilization in the first half of the 20th century. The vast majority of these victims had Spanish surnames, reflecting the prejudices of the era. More recently 39 women in California prisons were sterilized without consent between 2005 and 2013. Retarded people, people of color  and prisoners still have human rights, don’t they?

Fortunately, laws that govern sterilization procedures are strict now as a reaction to the abuses that took place in this country. The person must be at least 21 years of age and must sign a special consent at least 30 days before the procedure. This is onerous in a way, because it means that some people who truly want to end their ability to reproduce miss out.

The Eugenic Protection Law in Japan subjected 16,500 people to forced sterilization. Over a quarter million indigenous women were sterilized against their will in Peru. The list goes on; eugenics wasn’t just practiced in Nazi Germany but in many other societies, including our own.

No one seems to be espousing eugenics now. It was a theory that has seen its heyday and has died. It was unjust, especially when in the hands of rulers such as Hitler or Fujimori. We now recognize that reproductive coercion is unnecessary and counterproductive.

© Richard Grossman, MD 2018

Plan for a Healthy Baby

July 15th, 2018

You might have thought that I’m against people having children and therefore be surprised that I am writing about having children. I am definitely in favor of people having babies; my goal is for all babies to be planned, loved and healthy—and not too many!

I believe family planning should include the treatment of infertility. It was always a joy for me when a couple who had dealt with fertility issues was able to conceive. Often I was able to attend the birth of that child—a double joy!

What a child needs most is two loving parents. It appears that marriage before childbearing is no longer in style—40% of women giving birth in the USA are unmarried. However, a marriage certificate is not nearly as important as parents being in a stable relationship. Planned pregnancies are most likely to produce healthy, loved children. This column is an update on steps people can take to have a healthy child.

If the couple has been using hormonal contraception, it may be wise for them to stop and use a barrier method for a couple of months before trying to conceive. The chances of having twins may be increased if conception occurs right after stopping “the pill”.

There are several actions that people can take to improve fertility without seeing a doctor. Being overweight is a cause of female infertility, so losing weight may help. Eating well helps improve fertility for both men and women. The suggested diet includes healthy protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables—the same as for all of us. “Fast food” seems to prolong infertility!  For men, underwear can make a difference; the “family jewels” make more sperm if they hang loose.

Grain products in the USA are now enriched with traces of folate (a B vitamin). Fewer kids are born with neural tube defects (like spina bifida) and other problems, thanks to this vitamin. It is recommended that women start taking prenatal vitamins (which contain folate) at least 1 month before trying to conceive. It is even suggested that all women of reproductive age take folate supplementation, even if they use contraception, because failures happen. Furthermore, folate may increase a woman’s fertility.

Women usually take better care of themselves when they are pregnant, knowing that a healthy mom is more likely to have a healthy baby. For instance, women often want to know how much weight they should gain. I respond that the quality of the food is as important as the pounds gained. 

In medical school I was taught that alcohol is ok for women to drink in pregnancy. More recently we have been recommending that women avoid any alcohol when pregnant—but that recommendation has changed again. It is now thought that a very small amount of alcohol is possibly safe—but total avoidance is safest.

The literature is clear on tobacco products: they are harmful in pregnancy and should be avoided completely. Marijuana use in pregnancy has not been studied very much because of its legal status. One advantage of its legalization in Colorado is that it will be possible to get better information about its safety. I hope that medical scientists are following children whose mothers used “weed” when pregnant, but we won’t know about bad effects, if any, for many years.

Here is the latest information about some other “dos and don’ts” in pregnancy. Things that seem safe include: artificial sweeteners, caffeine in low to moderate amounts, insect repellants (including DEET), hair dyes, air travel and sexual intercourse (unless advised otherwise). Dental care, including x-rays and local anesthesia, is safe and encouraged during pregnancy—but laughing gas should be avoided, especially early in pregnancy. Exercise is encouraged, although women should take extra care to avoid injury when pregnant.

It is best to avoid getting overheated in the first trimester (up to 12 weeks), so hot tubs and long, hot showers are out. Swimming is safe, but waterskiing is not. Fish are good nutrition, but fish with high levels of mercury are especially dangerous in pregnancy. The fetal nervous system is particularly vulnerable to this toxic metal. Pregnant women should pay attention to local advisories concerning fish in lakes and streams, and avoid the most toxic ocean species: swordfish, tilefish, shark and mackerel king. Some kinds of tuna are contaminated with more mercury than others.

In a world that is overpopulated our goal should be for every child to get a good start in life by being healthy and loved.

© Richard Grossman MD 2018

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.