Fragility

We are living in the aftermath of several huge hurricanes, and a couple earthquakes. There was also some talk recently on the news about the first American to climb some dangerous summit, about Elon Musk’s plan to emigrate to Mars, and a joint US-Russia moon base. Good luck with that. All have something in common. Hubris.

When I hear about climbing, diving, trekking, soaring or blasting off, my heart does not beat fast, my adrenaline pump, not do I begin packing pitons, parachutes, scuba tanks or ray guns. Call me timorous, lazy or unimaginative, but I am happy in my comfort zone. And so are all living things. Like the birds and the bees, seaweed and sequoias, humans evolved to operate n a limited range of conditions.

Like the Goldilocks in “The Three Little Bears,” we can’t survive if our environmental porridge is too hot or too cold, our beds too hard or too soft. We need conditions to be just right. Above a certain temperature, our lives are threatened; below a certain temperature hypothermia does us in. Too little oxygen in the atmosphere, adios. Too many pollutants, same story. Foods are essential, but adulterated they are poison. Bad water or too little hydration kills us. Life is a delicate balance, easily upset.

Yes, human endurance, will, and audacity can permit us to push ourselves to the limit, but they ain’t called limits for nothing. They are real. If you crash in the Andes, shipwreck in the Antarctic, are pursued by murderous men or beasts, you may attempt prodigious feats to survive — crossing deserts, ice fields, mountain passes.

But to risk your life voluntarily for a thrill or an entry in Guinness is frankly cuckoo. The fittest who survive are rarely the lunatic risk takers of a phylum, genus or species. More often they are the slow and steady moss, unobtrusive guppies or highly adaptable beetles.

Yes, our ingenuity has allowed us to engineer ways to dive deeper and stay down longer than our physical equipment has evolved to handle. We can soar high using G-suits, oxygen tanks, space suits, but we can only pay visits to alien habitats for brief periods and only if heavily armored.

Most of the universe and a lot of our planet is hostile to our frail form of life, maybe to all forms of life. A creature that needs sunblock, socks and shoes, and an atmosphere that shelters it from invisible rays probably isn’t going to thrive on the Moon, Mars or Titan. The first men into space drew the obvious environmental conclusions. Our island earth is our home, and if we continue to degrade it we are dead ducks.

We are also enmeshed in a vast web and messing with any of it cam have unforeseen consequences. Nomadic tribes grazed their flocks promiscuously and soon they created deserts where oases had been. Dumping garbage, poisons, sewerage into rivers and oceans once seemed fine. The waters carried it away. But they don’t. The seas are vast, but not as vast as our ability to despoil.

Climate change deniers believe the endless sky can take any amount of pollutants we pump into it, but they too are wrong. As are fans of nuclear power and nuclear arms. The half life of these ghastly radioactive substance is hundreds of thousands of years longer than our own trivial span. Grown-up campers are expected to leave their campsites as clean as they found them. Time to treat the planet the same way. Not to be polite but to survive.

This week we have received another wake-up call. Puerto Rico was ground zero for a major catastrophe. Trees fell, roofs blew off, waters rose. But the real problem is the interdependency of the complex, fragile systems we all depend on — roads, the electric grid, telecommunications, ports. When one is disrupted, others fail. Pretty soon, we can find ourselves rocketed back 300 years, before the industrial revolution and living in a world that requires skills we don’t have and can only support a few resourceful humans, not millions.

And what happened to Puerto Rico due to a storm can happen to the rest of us by accident or malice or over dependence on a delicate web of systems. The big quake that California has been bracing for would make Puerto Rico look like a picnic. A crashing electric grid could kill tens of thousands. Hackers can reintroduce people to winter by shutting down pipelines, rob our banks, self-drive our cars or planes into oblivion.

An example from Puerto Rico is instructive. Congress in its wisdom gifted the territory with tax breaks that made it financially advantageous for pharmaceutical companies to locate plants there. Since it was cheaper to produce there, offshore competitors flocked to the island. Lower prices for sick people were supposed to result, higher profits surely did.

But Maria knocked out plants of Baxter, Pfizer, Merck, Eli Lilly, Bristol Meyer-Squibb, Amgen and many more, not to mention the factories of 30 medical device manufacturers. Seventy-two percent of Puerto Rican exports are involved, dealing a major whammy to its already stricken economy, but the real worry is a potential shortage of medicines for you and me and grandma.

People in the United States and many other countries are dependent on mediations from Puerto Rico including some for HIV, diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol, and immunosuppressants for transplant recipients. In out modern, interconnected, global supply chain world, any disruption can be deadly — literally. We need to abandon our complacent faith in our self-sufficiency, our ability to go it alone, our smug superiority and rugged individualism. We are all together on a little life raft, and if some damn fool capsizes it, we all drown.

Realizing this doesn’t make me a globalist, a socialist or a tree-hugger. Rather, it makes me a me-hugger smart enough to realize I am a tiny, vulnerable mite dependent on both the physical environment to which my kind has adapted over millennia and the immense, world-spanning structure humans now depend on that we call civilization. If you think you aren’t in the same boat, look around. And if you think disruption can’t be deadly, watch the news from Puerto Rico.


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