Monday, February 15, 2021

Are the alveoli in our lungs the new canaries in our planetary coal mine?

 This space continues to be focused on the various levels and methods, structural, physical, environmental, intellectual, and spiritual in which and by which there is a unity of everyone/thing/nature in the universe. Romantic poets were writing about a unity long before quantum physics was exploring the notion of atoms around a nucleus. Much of this space has urged the development of enabled international political structures, patterns, systems and especially a significant enhancement of the full United Nations orbit.

We have noted the biological inter-connectedness as well as the interdependence of all living flora and fauna on the many other systems that comprise our planet’s undergirding and sustaining flow of the energy on which we all depend. Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver, in an essay entitled
Humans and Nature: The Right Relationship, is quoted in an essay entitled Interdependence as a defining feature of all life, on, write this:

“The fundamental wealth on the earth, on which all else depends, is the ability to maintain life itself, which is made possible by the ability of green plants to convert sunlight into sugars. Plant-based sugars are wealth. They are used by the plants themselves and by virtually all other organisms top sustain themselves and to reproduce. Without this simple activity, all then manufactured capital, all the human capital, all the credit cards on the earth -the totality of these not only would be worthless, they would not exist. An economy in right relationship with real wealth is built on the simple fact that the integrity, resilience, and beauty of natural and social communities depends on the earth’s vibrant but finite life-supporting capacity.”

In a piece in The New Yorker, January 25, 2021, by Brooke Jarvis, entitled, The Air in Here, quotes pulmonologist Michael J. Stephen, (from his book, ‘Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs: The atmosphere is a communal space and lungs are an extension of it…(Stephens writes): (The lung) is an organ alive with immunology and chemistry, one that does an extraordinary amount of work under extreme stress from the moment we enter this world.

Ms Jarvis also writes in the above noted piece:

We’re still learning all that air pollution can do to our bodies. It can cause not just lung diseases and impaired lung development …but also, indirectly, heart attacks and osteoporosis. For first responders who breathed in clouds of dusty air following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, m many of them without wearing protective masks, health problems often camp in three waves. First there were persistent coughs, and then, a few years later, asthma, sinus inflammation acid-reflux disease, C.O.P.D. and pneumonia. Finally came cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Another Jarvis quote:

We tend to think of a lung as a simple pump: one gas is pulled in, another is pushed out. In fact Stephens writes…With each of the roughly twenty thousand breaths we take in a day, air travels through convoluted passages that can stretch for fifteen hundred miles, to one of approximately five hundred million alveoli-tiny clustered sacs-that each of our lungs holds. Oxygen moves from the lungs to the blood-stream, as carbon dioxide flows back to the lungs. The Brain stem controls the balance, which must be just right….

Lungs are a paradox. They are so fragile that an accumulation of the tiniest scars can rob them of their elasticity and function, so delicate that one of the pioneers of pulmonology solved a long-standing mystery about a deadly neonatal lung disease in part by reading a book about the physics of soap bubbles. Yet, unlike our other internal organs, nestled away in side us, they are open, like a wound, to the outside world….Our lungs are both protection and portal, the nexus of our relationship with an environment that can heal us as well as harm us. In their deepest recesses, a wall as thin as a single cell is all that separates us from the world.

It is not only the timeliness of the Jarvis piece, given the global pandemic whose multiple variants are swooping across seemingly all continents, at a pace that far exceeds the capacity of scientists and laboratories to study and to design and produce vaccines that can and will reduce both the spread and the lethality of the virus. It is also timely given the “I can’t breath!” statement by George Floyd, while he was being suffocated under the knee of a law enforcement officer, a chant echoed across North America throughout the protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter. And while this month is deemed one to celebrate Black Lives, and the media is sprinkled with personal stories of highly courageous, creative and compelling black men and women, we are beginning to take more active note of the complicated inter-relationships in which we are all engaged: racism, air pollution, food production, food available, virus protection, health care, environmental protections….And amid the confluence of these many issues, we repeatedly hear the phrase, “we are all in this together” as if, by repeating it, we will all come to the place where we will all wear masks, where we will all social distance, where we will all welcome a safe and effective vaccine, where we will all take steps in our personal and private lives, to re-cycle, to compost, to purchase fewer plastic bags and packages, where we will all drive electric cars and where we will all surrender to the notion that this chant, “we are all in this together” really means something crucial for each person on the planet.

There is something very hollow about the chant, “We are all in this together!”  On one hand, there are millions of people, in too many countries, who do not wish to be part of an establishment majority. There is a disdain for the political voices and actors whose seek a kind of unity, especially in the face of both violence and openly weaponized attitudes and language. Homegrown terrorism, fertilized by the lies of an ex-president in the U.S. and by similar lies in other right-wing autocratic regimes like those in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, North Korea and Moscow, along with the rise in authoritarianism, and the concomitant decline of international co-operation, the direct competition between the private, for-profit sector and the public sector funded by ordinary people who pay their taxes, (while mega-corporations pay little to none), the competition for vaccines between and among nations, even with COFAX, potentially relegating poverty-stricken nations to the end of the line, and the potential for a rapidly mutating virus to continue to outstrip both vaccines and public compliance with protection and prevention measures….these are just some of the competing forces, still not fully contended with, either by elected officials or certainly by many ordinary citizens who (wrongly and detestably) consider compliance to be an invasion of their personal freedom.

There is clear evidence, for example, of a hierarchy of funding of public health issues. Ms Jarvis points out:

Lung cancer is by far the deadliest cancer in America, but other cancers receive significantly more funding. Even death from traditional killers such as heart disease and cancer are largely in decline, in the United States. Mortality from respiratory diseases is rising. (And this was true before we lost hundreds of thousands of Americans to COVID-19 which kills most of its victims through acute respiratory failure.) Cases of asthma increase every year, and, globally, so do cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is associated with smoking but also afflicts, people who have never smoked. Lung cancer, too, is becoming more common among non-smokers: in the United States, someone is diagnosed roughly every two and a half minutes. Worldwide, respiratory problems are the second most common cause of death, and the No. 1 killer of children under five.

Whether we are reading about rising temperatures, spikes in forest fires and draughts, the rapid extinction of hundreds of thousands of species, both animal and plant, the rising clouds of carbon dioxide from China and India, or the biology and fragility of the human lung, we are living at a time when we are being flooded with relevant, cogent, and disturbing information that demands urgent and immediate action. And while there are new words coming from the mouths of people like John Kerry, the U.S. President’s envoy on global climate change, and shifts in U.S. policy around such projects as the Keystone pipeline, and while major auto producers are finally getting on board through announced commitments to electric vehicles, the convergence of the exhaustion and depression and anxiety over COVID-19, and the shuttering of thousands of businesses, the staggered opening and closing of public and secondary schools, and the intermittent access to needed internet access, as well as a deficit in number of families and children without the technology to facilitate in-home learning many continue either hopeless or apathetic about positive change.

The apparent and proven insouciance among world leaders to commit jointly to a globally evident and planetary threatening scourge, and the mounting evidence of serious cyber invasions of multiple systems, including the water system near Tampa Florida, on the weekend of the Superbowl. Reports indicate that hackers injected excessive amounts of tar into the public drinking water. The international political climate and culture clearly foreshadows a threatening collision between the forces of greed and narcissism (the gas and oil companies, the financial services sector, the corruption of autocrats, the complicity of too many elected officials clinging to their own personal political power) with the complex dangers from the speed, complexity and penetrability of new technologies, and the apparent unwillingness of world leaders to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

The mid-twentieth century American tragedy, Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller saw Willy Loman utter words repeated here several times, “The woods are burning!” Never, in all the many years during which I attempted to introduce that play to senior high school students did I ever envision a global situation that saw the Amazon Rain Forest on fire, the redwood forests in California burning millions of acres, homes, and people’s lives, the rising number of hurricanes, tropical storms, and the multiple health crises, along with COVID-19, that have been plaguing individual and family lives for decades, without a significant public response to counter the threat of our own human self-sabotage.

Could our lungs be another of the many needed canaries in the growing coal mine that we are about to call the planet?

Please don’t hold your breath!

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