September 28, 1998
Life is full of surprises. That’s one of its delights. But one of its biggest surprises is that we’re actually surprised by some of the things that surprise us. You’d think we would know better by now.
For example: a flurry of recent press reports display a shocked surprise that diseases like tuberculosis and meningitis are displaying vigorous resistance to our chemical arsenals. Fifteen to twenty percent of the strains of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that cause meningitis, pneumonia, and other serious illnesses (as well as common childhood ear infections) are now resistant to multiple antibiotics, according to Dr. McCracken of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center–up from “virtually none” five years ago. G. Zajicek of Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, writing in “The Cancer Journal” in 1993 observed that “…while in 1942 virtually all strains of Staphylococcus aureus worldwide were susceptible to penicillin G, today more than 95%… are resistant to penicillin, ampicillin, and anti-pseudomonas penicillins.”
We seem to be surprised, which I find surprising. The phenomenon of natural selection has been well understood for many years. The better adapted survivors of an assault (predation, poison, etc) are most likely to reproduce, so future generations are, in turn, better adapted, more likely to reproduce, and so on. “Evolutionary pressure” in the form of a drug (or pesticide) that kills off most organisms (never 100%) while leaving some alive, actually selects over time for a population of organisms that is increasingly resistant to the very measure intended to kill them.
Actually this should be even less of a surprise, since we’ve witnessed a parallel process in pesticide resistance for decades. “Since 1950 at least 520 species of insect and mites, 273 weed species, 150 plant diseases. and 10 species of rodents (mostly rats) have developed genetic resistance to one or more pesticides,” according to G. Tyler Miller. “In addition, at least 17 species of insect pests are resistant to all major classes of insecticides, and several fungal plant diseases are now immune to most of the widely used fungicides….Although the use of synthetic pesticides has increased 33-fold since 1942…more of the US food supply is lost to pests today (37%) than in the 1940s (31%).”
It fact it can be no other way. Absent a 100%-effective biocide (whether a pesticide or antibiotic), the “kill it with toxics” strategy will inevitably select for mutant survivors. The resistant mutants are the ones more likely to reproduce, with each succeeding generation increasingly resistant under the “evolutionary pressure” of the pesticides.
The only strategy that can be viable in the long term is one where the control agent co-evolves along with the target. That means coming up with new and ever more toxic chemistry–the dead-end path we have been on for decades–or shifting increasingly to biological control agents, or, better still, _ecological_ agents, where complex ecosystem dynamics provide the balance with a resilience that a single prescription or single organism can never muster.
This is as true for medicine as for agriculture. “The phenomenon of anti-microbial resistance to chemotherapy [in general],” notes Zajicek,” is also relevant to cancer chemotherapy. It is assumed that cancer cells will ultimately respond to chemotherapy in the same way as microbes do. Unfortunately each treatment breeds resistant cancer cells, exactly as in bacteria. Oncology should therefore turn its attention to the role of the organism in cancer and stop its indiscriminate prescription of chemical drugs.”
Or take mad cow disease. (Please!) It reminds me of those old Mickey Rooney / Judy Garland “Hey kids, I’ve got a great idea, let’s put on a show” movies. “Hey kids, I’ve got a great idea: let’s take an animal species that has evolved for millions of years as an herbivore, grind it up, and feed it to other herbivores. Better still, let’s feed it ground-up-same-species-herbivores! Then let’s be surprised when we discover we’ve created a self-vectoring problem.” The global food system as 1930s musical comedy.
Perhaps you prefer global climate change? Dump emissions into the air, changing the atmosphere’s energy absorbing and radiating characteristics, thus changing the energy balances of the atmospheric heat engine. Add energy to the system with localized but significant contributions of “waste” heat from societal energy use. And then seem dismayed that the climate generated by an atmospheric engine driven by energy gradients seems to be perturbed. Golly! What a surprise!
Or consider the Russian economy. Replace a corrupt “socialist” oligarchy with a corrupt “capitalist” oligarchy. Pour in billions in international capital chasing promised riches (oblivious to risk) that somehow flow to robber barons instead of economic development. Move from state ownership to widespread public ownership to a handful of billionaires in a year or two. Oh yes, don’t forget the de rigeur austerity programs that leave most of the population below the poverty line. Do this all with the insistent and confident advice of “capitalist revolutionary” consultants from the US–who now, facing a teetering mess that happens to include a still enormous and highly fungible cache of nuclear weapons, admit that they may have been a trifle overconfident.
Somehow it all reminds me of Claude Rains’ wonderful line in “Casablanca,” when his Captain Reynaud, under Nazi pressure, cracks down on the backroom casino in Humphrey Bogart’s nightclub, and exclaims “Gambling? At Rick’s? I am shocked! Shocked!” (as he deftly sweeps his night’s earnings into his pocket).
What does this rant have to do with business and environment? Consider this. The economic landscape today is characterized by the certainty of uncertainty. Every business, regardless of size, sophistication or industry, and every other economic institution, whether government, NGO or household, faces the constant challenge of betting its money on a more or less uncertain future–a result of the accelerating pace of technological change, the impacts of globalization, the fickleness of consumer expectations, the challenge of competitive innovation, and more.
Yet decisions must be made each day. Why act like children playing with their first chemistry set–mixing together a little of this, a bit of that, and something from the medicine cabinet just to see what might happen–when we already know so many of the rules? Why not reason from what certainty we are able to find in the swirling sea of change, and minimize the risk to shareholders and future generations alike? Experiment with the mutable, not the fixed?
Where can we find that certainty? In first principles, in a chain of reasoning that flows from what I’ve called “the physics that underlies the chemistry that underlies the biology that underlies the ecology that underlies the human economy.”
This may not be much help with Russia–where both good sense and a sense of justice seem in short supply. But it may be just the ticket for the interactions of the human economy with the earth’s living systems. The lessons of nature’s laws are inescapable, and crystal clear, even in–or especially in–uncertain economic times.