December 18, 2007

Let's talk about a word

The word is "sustainable."

The Times magazine had a great little piece this weekend about the idea of "sustainability," and particularly about how as an idea it's almost become neutralized. No one is opposed to sustainability. Everyone thinks its great! And because of that, you get big agricultural and pharmaceutical companies saying, Sure, we care about sustainability! I'm sure they do. But the problem is that everyone is in favor of sustaining what they do--and no one really wants to learn about how what they do might not be sustainable. That would be, as Gore says, an inconvenient sort of truth.

The times article is about two things that have been shown in the last year to not be sustainable. One of them is the widespread use of antibiotics in farming. This article grabbed my interest, because one side-effect of growing up with a close relative dying of AIDS, as I did, is that you acquire a real sensitivity early on to the importance and fragility of antibiotic care.

Consider this:

For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace. The methicillin-resistant staph that first emerged in hospitals as early as the 1960s posed a threat mostly to elderly patients. [AND MY UNCLE JEFF!] But a new and even more virulent strain — called “community-acquired MRSA” — is now killing young and otherwise healthy people who have not set foot in a hospital. No one is yet sure how or where this strain evolved, but [experts suspect]... another environment where the heavy use of antibiotics is selecting for the evolution of a lethal new microbe: the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.


This paragraph is basically like a big neon arrow pointing directly at me. It says to me: remember how your Uncle Jeff died partly because of hospital based MRSA's? Ah! Okay, well now your son, your son Elliot Jeffrey, is vulnerable to community-acquired MRSAs.

He is vulnerable because you want cheap pork-chops (and oh, how I love my pork chops!), and in order for cheap pork-chops to be produced, farmers must misuse and overuse antibiotics in a way we all know is not sustainable.

As for independent public-health researchers, they say they can’t study the problem without the cooperation of the livestock industry, which, not surprisingly, has not been forthcoming. For what if these researchers should find proof that one of the hidden costs of cheap meat is an epidemic of drug-resistant infection among young people? There would be calls to revolutionize the way we produce meat in this country. This is not something that the meat and the pharmaceutical industries or their respective regulatory “watchdogs” — the Department of Agriculture and F.D.A. — are in any rush to see happen.


Anyway, I don't expect all of you--you, who do not have my particular history with antibiotics--to find this little article to be the sort of emotional call to arms that it is to me. Probably you all will never have the sort of gut fear of misused antibiotics that I do.

Instead it is just to say that this article is one of several happenings in my life over the last week--conversations, readings, etc--that have managed to bring my vague feelings about environmental sustainability to a head. Friends, I am worried. I am worried about sustaining this world I am making for my son.

Since I am not an apocalyptic person by nature, it feels awkward to me to be writing a post like this. Mostly, I think life turns out okay, regardless. And I am not sure how to make my own feelings about sustainability into something meaningful and active, rather than just vague and self-congratulatory.

So don't consider this a battle-cry, folks. It's just to say: I am thinking. I am becoming more willing to acknowledge some of the inconvenient truths of my life. And lord, I am willing to buy more expensive pork chops, and fewer of them, if that is the small small price of leaving a better world for my boy.

5 comments:

Beck said...

I am extremely drug resistant.
I am extremely prone to severe infections.
Believe me when I say this is an issue that interests me.

Beck said...

No no! THis totally came across as "this is an issue for me; I understand if it's not an issue for you!". I was just trying to be very clear about how deeply it IS an issue for me. You wrote this post very well.

Amy E said...

The unsustainability of life as we know it, politically and environmentally, is the main reason I will not have children. I think it's the nicest thing I can do for the planet. It does annoy me a bit that if only everyone would also agree to have one child, then maybe I could just have one, too. But no, there are plenty of people having 5 children. For them, and the Earth, I will have none.

Sheree said...

Studying as an undergraduate and taking what Brandon refers to as "monster making labs", I learned firsthand just how EASY it is to create antibiotic resistant microbes. We routinely swabbed nonvirulent e. coli on antibiotic laced petri dishes. It was rare to have a dish incubate with no active colonies (read drug-resistant bacterium). I am terrified about what our antibiotic loving life does to the world at large. I pay the extra for my meat and avoid any antibiotic personal care products. I advocate exposing yourself to many organisms while you're young and healthy in order to build up the antibodies for those rainier days.
To Amy's point, well, she has a valid arguement. However, I am personally unwilling to cede the world to the type of people who have a passel of kids and plan instead to replace myself in the gene pool.

katiphillips said...

I always figured if we created a super germ, we could also create a super antibiotic. Isn't it a cycle? We create a drug, the germ evolves, we create another drug for the new germ, it evolves ...