Stop Growing or Meet the Four Horsemen?

August 8, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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I took some time off from writing this summer, as I was busy getting unmarried and moving back to my original home, Florida. Don’t ever change your name—it’s a real hassle to change it back, from Logan to Odum. The divorce was quite amicable, after almost 40 years together, and Alaska provides few obstacles to the process. The house in Alaska sold quickly, to friends, so here I am, literally a hot mess, in north-central Florida, trying to re-acclimate to 92 degrees in the shade with 95% humidity. Instead of wolverines and bears traipsing through the yard, it is raccoons and possums. Instead of goshawks eating the chickens, I have fledgling cardinals at my feeder. And instead of glorious mountain tundra runs, I have quiet paddles along sacred springs and lakes. I have encountered enough old friends and acquaintances here that I am quickly regaining my sense of place in this sunny, hot, subtropical, watery paradise.

Emergence of the four horsemen

Americans are now receiving unsubtle messages from the universe that perhaps we have reached our limits, and it is time to stop trying to grow the economy. The four horsemen of pestilence, famine, war, and death are emerging on a global basis, as energy inputs wane and the global economic system begins to turn down. Yet feedback from the system is still telling our system to grow expand, when perhaps it would be wiser to expend more energy on resilient contraction. The threat of Ebola impels me in particular to find my voice again, as the blogosphere is mincing around the real issues here.

Ebola marks a potential visible turning point in our society, as the mandates and feedback loops in a system geared towards growth as its primary goal begin to oppose basic public health and safety principles, morality is subverted, and systems begin to break down. Historically, small African Ebola outbreaks have had high mortality rates of up to 90% in small, isolated villages limited spread of the disease. The current Zaire strain has been reported with lower mortality rates ranging from reports of 5364% mortality (Glatter, August 4th, 2014, Medscape & WHO, August 6th, 2014). This potentially lower mortality rate may be bad news, because it increases transmissibility. The disease has spread quickly across borders, aided by modern transportation systems. As of this week, Ebola is now loose in Lagos, a chaotic, rapidly growing, port city of 21 million, the largest city in Africa.

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The data coming from countries in West Africa are probably inaccurate and dated. Chaotic environments and limited public health mechanisms combine with a shackled, indebted World Health Organization, hampered low-budget aid organizations and a main stream media whose primary goal is to promote economic growth all combine to create a biased, skewed picture. Time will tell, but confirmed reports and numbers lead to a developing picture of a potential pandemic.

Americans believe that our vaunted western medical health care system protects us from all threats. But our system is a capitalistic, just-in-time system that uses a global supply chain and intensive energy requirements to operate at close to 100% occupancy and high efficiency in order to maximize profits, especially for the very ill in intensive care or costly isolation beds. It’s hard to get a bed sometimes now—the system would break down very quickly in a pandemic, with most unable to access medical care.

Two Ebola victims have been brought back to the United States (Emory Hospital) for high-tech cure and probably to better access their blood at the Atlanta CDC to begin working on potential vaccines and cures. Ebola has not been a target for pharmaceutical research up to now, because the disease historically impacted people who could not provide first-world profits on drug purchases, and the disease killed people too fast for profits to be made. Pharmaceutical companies prefer to treat chronic illnesses that allow greater, recurring profits.

The West Africa Ebola outbreak began in March of 2014, and is now expanding rapidly in 5 or 6 countries. The 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak Wiki is one of the most current sources, which describes containment complications:

Difficulties faced in attempting to contain the outbreak include the outbreak’s multiple locations across country borders, inadequate equipment given to medical personnel, funeral practices such as washing a body, and reluctance among country people to follow preventive practices, including “freeing” suspected Ebola patients from isolation, and suspicion that the disease is caused by sorcery, or that doctors are killing patients. In late July, the former Liberian health minister Peter Coleman stated that “people don’t seem to believe anything the government now says.”

Add public health limitations in Africa to the presence of a rapid global transmission system in the form of modern air travel, and we’ve got the potential formula for a global pandemic. Direct flights, poor air filtration and limited sanitation in airplane heads, overcrowded seating, and the relatively late onset of symptoms, combined with the mandate to limit any regulatory process that might curtail economic growth, and expansion of Ebola to more countries is almost assured. In the US, the presence of 50 million people in the US without healthcare, overly crowded urban populations, high-tech, for-profit healthcare not prepared for a pandemic, and a very mobile population could easily make an African problem an American problem

Economic growth or public health?

In our globally connected society, we are all just one direct flight away from a potential pandemic if we subvert public health mandates for economic growth. The coincidental African economic summit held this week in Washington DC is a snapshot of this problem—economic growth is the focus, and serious public health concerns are something to be discussed quietly in back rooms outside of media coverage, rather than prominently on the agenda. I can only imagine the quiet discussions, focused on the economic impact of curtailed air or other travel to countries.

If we shut down all travel, what would a shutdown to many African countries do to our global supply chain? What would a pandemic panic do to economic growth, unstable currencies, and stock markets? In a world where there’s only a 3 day supply of food on the shelves, even in prosperous countries, how can we possibly close borders, except with martial law? We’re all connected, and running at top efficiency with little resiliency in the system. What happens when the universal systemic mandate for economic growth conflicts directly with the general public health of a society? Which is worse, letting Nature have her way with us, or intentionally sticking a spoke in the wheel of our economic machine and bringing it to a sudden halt? What about the oil? Nigeria supplies critical oil and LNG to many countries, especially Europe, which is the largest regional importer of Nigerian oil. And so on. Authorities in some countries are beginning to shut down non-essential travel to the affected countries, but even that action may be a case of too little too late in this situation. My critical-care-nurse daughter commented this week, I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that this ends badly.

So what can we do?

I usually end my posts with advice for personal action. The future is uncertain here, but the factors involved suggest that the WHO may soon label this a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).” What an acronym! You might consider buying a box of disposable vinyl gloves and particulate respirator masks, for this or other epidemics or other pollution hazards that travel by air that are guaranteed to arrive on your doorstep in our lower-energy future. Consider how you would fare in an extended quarantine situation if stranded in your home, if not for this potential pandemic, then for other hazards in our future? Consider how to begin living in a lower energy world, where less energy impacts every facet of your life. And if you’ve got air travel scheduled in the next three months, stay apprised of the news out of West Africa, and consider alternatives. It is wise and prudent to avoid placing too much faith in a capitalistic, just-in-time system that is straining at the bounds of peak efficiency, in a world in overshoot and diminishing energy inputs.

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Thelma and Louise . . . . Could there be a more apt analogy for the results of autocatalysis and exponential growth? Baby blue 1966 Thunderbird convertible . . . zoom, zoom!

The real issue here is the systemic mandate or even imperative of economic growth. Because the primary goal of our national and international economic systems is growth at all costs, we subvert everything else–values, ethics, even health. And the gas pedal is pressed to the floor as we continue to roll over the cliff.

Mary Odum

Author Mary Odum is an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy.

Tags: economic growth, pandemics, personal resilience