Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Filial responsibility laws and GLBT issues

Gay marriage, of course, has been proposed as a way to encourage gay men and lesbians participate vigorously in sharing family responsibility and the burdens of raising children and, indirectly at least, eldercare, by helping them maintain a human infrastructure that can deliver this care (rather than being left to deliver the care themselves). For gays and lesbians, there is often a complication of alienation from parents and family. This is more often subtle tension than outright abandonment or expulsion by the parents in the past. The GLBT person may be pursuing his or her own goals in a way that other family members and especially parents regard is disrespectful or disloyal to the concept of the family as a unit. The GLBT person may also have, in longstanding manner, spent so much energy and attention on his or her own needs that he or she is simply not connected to the dire needs of blood relatives. In a small family, this may make providing care for elderly parents even more difficult. A GLBT person might have to abandon a personal relationship or other interest to care for a parent and be unwilling to join the parent’s “world.” The cultural right, indeed, would have every reason to set up a circular catch 22, and deny gays and lesbians the right to form families of their own choosing, while holding them responsible for the heterosexual families formed by others. These conservatives would imagine that this situation would actually encourage “gays” to play along and have more children of their biological own and help reverse the demographic effects of lower birth rates. Male gay psychology, because of its upward affiliation, leads to a dead-end trap in answering this, because gay men look up to those whom they perceive as more fit providers than themselves. Viewed at another angle, however, stricter filial responsibility laws (or enforcement thereof) might give gays an incentive to adopt children (in states where permitted), even as singles, confounding utopian conservative goals to socially engineer a “birthright” of every child to a heterosexually and legally married (female) mother and (male) father.

It is surprising to me that leaders of conventional gay rights movements don’t make this point more often. Attempts to strengthen legal filial responsibility could make gay marriage arguments more credible, and critical. Perhaps filial responsibility could make gay marriage more divisive, too, by adding to the notion that conventional marriage and biological parentage should be a prerequisite for social legitimacy. Filial responsibility could also strengthen “moralistic” arguments (common with sources like the Catholic Church) for universal or single payer health care—even if this seems like a paradox.

One practical way a childless adult could give himself some protection from being pushed around by this kind of responsibility could be the old staple: buy a house, big enough for elderly parents to move into. It does mean more debt. But many states have homestead exemptions that might protect the homeowner from future filial responsibility claims, and the measure could keep parents out of nursing homes and assisted living. Furthermore, it helps keep the single adult in control. The practical reality is that filial responsibility could have a major impact on how a single adult can live and what he (or she) can do about his own life with very fundamental choices and directions. It is surprising that both the GLBT and conservative lobbies often miss this entire area.

The upcoming debate over filial responsibility as a subset of family responsibility bears a curious parallel to the health care debate. It seems that you can’t let people opt out. But let’s follow it through. There is already talk that young adults should be pressured their own long term care insurance and that it could be made easier to use pre-tax dollars to purchase this. We could augment this concept with pre-tax filial responsibility accounts, which could even be set up (by public policy changes) to be partially matchable by employers. An individual would be required to maintain these based on his or her income and assets, and could be relieved of the responsibility (at least in part) upon having or adopting children (in a legal marriage – and that would certainly sharpen the debate over gay marriage and gay adoption!). The contribution level requirements would not be affected by the life spans of parents (otherwise respect for life would be de-incentivized). Upon reaching a certain age (like full retirement age) an individual could withdraw what remained from the contributions (like an IRA). One issue that such a policy change would address is falling birthrates and longer life spans – demographics. It would make a policy statement that everyone shares in filial responsibility, that it is a mandatory obligation of citizenship. It does sound anti-libertarian and interventionist in terms of social engineering, but it would focus public debate where it needs to be. It defines filial responsibility as an individual responsibility metric and therefore is intrinsically objective and individualistic, and leaves the emotional carapace that shields many families from intellectual cogitation of the responsibilities intact, and variable among different families. It seems inevitable that such a “modest proposal” will be made in Congress, and it probably needs to be

(This is excerpted from a longer essay (authored and owned by me) at http://www.doaskdotell.com/controv/filial.htm ) For more on long term care, visit also http://www.doaskdotell.com/controv/health.htm

Thursday, April 20, 2006



Over my three and a half decades of adult life, I have been surprised, especially in retrospect, of the relative stability of the world that allowed me to live out my own life, according to my sense of identity, as I saw fit, sometimes ghettoized, but with physical and communications mobility. The single worst incident was, of course, 9/11/2001. A number of grisly possibilities ranging from weapons of mass destruction to oil shortages and gas rationing to the AIDS epidemic have sometimes threatened that way of life. And now we hear dire warning of a super-flu, with plain old airborne contagion. something like Stephen Kings 1978 novel The Stand.

The July-August 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs contains dire discussion particularly of bird flu, and of the possible consequences of an epidemic this winter or some other year. In Asia, a new kind of virus, H5N1 avian flu, has moved to various farm mammals and sometimes to humans who have eaten infected chicken or animals. The mortality rate has been very high, although it is unknown if there are many milder unreported cases. The great fear is that the virus becomes transmissible person-to-person, a quite likely event which would probably make the virus less lethal as it adapted to a human host. The virus could become an airborne mammalian or human virus if it swapped genetic material with other flu viruses (in a manner analogous to biological sexual reproduction of true organisms) in a new host. But we are not sure how quickly, but we indeed have “probable cause” to become very concerned. The virus deserves comparison with the 2003 SARS ourbreak, caused by a new coronavirus (a large virus which, in mild forms, typically causes laryngitis and acute bronchitis). Careful controls and occasional quarantines were actually effective in keeping SARS out of the west, although avian flu would almost certainly be much more contagious. Comparison with the 1918 Spanish flu is appropriate. That disease, in the young and strong, caused fulminant infection, with cyanosis and internal bleeding (resembling hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola) and possible disfigurement or disability in survivors. This “new” virus (well known since 2003) may be similar: it can attack organs outside the respiratory tract (it can affect the liver, the brain, the GI tract), which would increase morbidity and mortality. It is well to remember the comparison with HIV, which is transmissible only through blood and has long incubation periods (although in the 1980s right wing commentators would speculate on what could happen in HIV became more contagious or became insect-borne).

The social and economic impact of a 1918-style pandemic can be enormous. An epidemic would probably start in an Asian country, resulting immediately in cutting off air travel with the country and exports. (I recall before my pre 9/11 trip to Europe in Spring 2001 my concern that the trip could be disrupted by foot and mouth disease in livestock, a disease that broke out because of a single mishap in a Scottish restaurant!) Various manufactured goods like personal computers and electronics could become scare. Were a large epidemic to reach large cities in this country, mandatory closings of many businesses and curfews become conceivable. (On November 2, 2005, the government suggested that travel restrictions, even within the country, could occur; international travelers could be detained for hours for screening; “snow days” up to a week or so could close schools and many kinds of “non-essential” businesses.) Whole industries could be decimated. Given the very rapid incubation and spread of some flus, it is hardly to imagine that quarantine could be effective as it was with SARS. We may remember the health signs from 1918 when coughing and sneezing persons were not admitted to public places.

The social impact comes partly from the importance of personal mobility in today’s society. We have been before this before in different form with the thread of gasoline shortages and rationings. Many younger people and single people (including gays) socialize in large crowded events. For persons with normal immunity and with most common infections, such incidental exposure may actually strengthen a person’s immunity as he grows older (not to be confused with the case of STD’s). Another possibility with some pandemics is that some adults may become carriers, minimally symptomatic themselves but able to transmit fatal disease to children, as with teachers. At least a remote possibility could be the introduction of an avian flu epidemic by a bio-terrorist.

The possibility of enormous social and economic dislocations has a bearing on our social values and priorities. Individualism flourishes in a stable technological society where persons have considerable control over their own circumstances and opportunities. Older patriarchal value systems predicated on the family for its own sake, or tribal systems, often rooted in religious identity, assume that the world is that a hostile place and that one owes allegiance to family first as a principal mode for long term survival in the face of unpredictable external circumstances.

One observation is obvious. The administration and drug companies need to get a handle on the manufacture of sufficient vaccines and anti-viral medications. Liability issues and contamination problems like what happened in Britain in 2004 must not be allowed to run amok. Remember, however, the experience with 1976 Swine Flu where Congress had to relieve drug companies of contingent liabilities. There was no pandemic, and there were some problems with the vaccine (Guillain-Barre syndrome). However, risks and benefits often have to be weighed with many vaccines. Public health is one area where libertarian models have trouble stranding up. The concept of “herd immunity” applies, and misuse of antibiotics or antivirals by some persons (or some countries, as is already the case with China) can have global ramifications, as can unsanitary agricultural and industrial practices. We are already seeing similar observations with global warming.

Still, we need to keep a perspective. H5N1 may have been smoldering for years in Southeast Asia without jumping into a contagious flu, and the government obviously could overact in ordering costly quarantines and neighborhood closings. Still, how did the 1918 Spanish flu occur so suddenly? Was it because of overcrowding of the military or other peoples in World War I?

Articles in 2005 summer Foreign Affairs:

Laurie Garrett: “Probable Cause: The Next Pandemic?” and “The Lessons of HIV/AIDS”

Michael T. Osterholm: “Preparing for the Next Pandemic”

William B. Karesh and Robert A. Cook: “The Human-Animal Link”

Marc Santora, “When a bug becomes a monster: New York prepares an already overburdened system for the threat of avian flu,” The New York Times, Aug. 21, 2005, p. A20

David Brown, “Scientists Race to Head Off Lethal Potential of Avian Flu,” The Washington Post, Aug. 23, 2005

Lynn Johnson, Tim Appenseller, “The Next Killer Flu: Can We Stop It?” National Geographic, October 2005. The article stresses the unpredictable nature of H5N1.

AFP, Yahoo, WHO World Health Organization director Lee Jong-wook warned that avian influenza was spreading from domestic fowl to migratory birds. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20050906/hl_afp/healthfluasiawho “WHO repeats warning of rapid bird flu spread,” Sept. 6, 2005

ABC News gave a sobering report of the possibility of a pandemic on “Primetime Live” on September 15, 2005. It would take 6 months to get a vaccine in place once an outbreak occurred. The one medication available is Tamiflu, (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=15740 ) from one country in Switzerland (the Roche company), and it is impossible to get enough doses should an outbreak occur quickly. We have only 2 million doses on hand today, and up to 6 million are planned for. The United States seems not to have planned well compared to other companies. The company offers the vaccine on first-come, first-serve basis. The ABC report mentioned possible huge and longterm quarantines of entire neighborhoods in large cities, with ruinous economic effects.

Senator Bill Frist, “The threat of avian flu: U,S. needs an action plan—and needs it now,” The Washington Times, Thu Sept 29, 2005, p A23.

ABC “World New Tonight” reported that President Bush was considering using the military to quarantine entire areas if an H5N1 outbreak appeared in the United States, and he thought that Congress should debate the issue; others feel that it should remain under control of public health officials. See Jennifer Loven, AP, “Bush considers military rule on flu fight; President Bush raises notion of using military to quarantine areas where avian flu breaks out,” Oct. 4, 2005, at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory?id=1182806

Denise Grady, “Danger of Flu Pandemic is Clear, if not Present,” The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2005. Link is http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/national/09flu.html?hp&ex=1128830400&en=e1a0fad64313f36b&ei=5094&partner=homepage (may require a subscription).

The new website centralizing government and WHO information is http://www.pandemicflu.gov/

Also, for the Nov 2, 2005 announcement: http://www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/pandemic-influenza.html http://www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/nspi.pdf

Here is the editorial by Fareed Zarika from the Oct 31, 2005 issue of Newsweek, “A Threat Worse than Terror: The government can’t even give intelligent advice to its citizens.” http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9787690/site/newsweek/ The Newsweek story is “The Fight Against the Flu,” by Jerry Adler.

But in The New Republic, Nov. 21, 2005, Michael Fumento weighs in with “Fuss and Feathers: Pandemic over the avian flu.” Pandemic, he points out, does not imply “deadly epidemic,” just “worldwide epidemic”. Fumento dismisses the human death rate in Asia so far as “sample bias,” and explains the Spanish flu deaths in terms of complications (pneumonias) and unusual military overcrowding. He does make the sensible recommendation of widespread vaccination with the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine.

Justin Gillis, “U.S. Builds Stockpile of Vaccine for Flu Pandemic,” The Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2005, reports some increase in supply of experimental vaccines (4 million doses) with the possibility of dilution to stretch it. But he then writes, “A pandemic would be expected to confine millions of people to their homes for weeks or months, shutting down much of the economy.”

Some underground papers and websites from Asia (epochtimes.com) report that China has over 300 human deaths from avian flu and that there are a number of documented cases of human-human transmission (as of 12/1/2005).


Sept. 21, 2005: AP, Yahoo, CNN report a few more deaths in small children in Indonesia. It is expected that more reports will trickle in from that part of the world, but when would they signal human-human transmission?

Sept 29, 2005: ABC “World News Tonight” reports that Thailand and Vietnam have much better control of the disease in birds than does Indonesia. Brian Ross’s story is at http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Flu/story?id=1169664&page=1 The issue is also to be covered on “Nightline” Sept 29, 2005. AP stpry http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Flu/wireStory?id=1160221

Oct. 8, 2005. NBC “Today” reports that a male nurse in Vietnam may have gotten avian flu from direct contact with a patient.

Dec 15. Emma Ross, AP/The Review Alliance, “Pandemic Flu-Vaccine Prototype Promising”, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/B/BIRD_FLU_VACCINE?SITE=OHALL2&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

Sanofi: Bird Flu Vaccine Data looks good (France): http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/S/SANOFI_PASTEUR_BIRD_FLU?SITE=OHALL2&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

China reports 6th human case. http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/C/CHINA_BIRD_FLU?SITE=OHALL2&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

Underground sources suggest that China is grossly underreporting.

Dec. 21, 2005 ABC News reports that there is some circumstantial evidence of Tamiflu resistance or ineffectiveness against H5N1 in humans. There seems to be a relevant study in the New England Journal of Medicine at http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/353/25/2667 (you may need a subscription for a lot of content).

Jan 6, 2006 Three children have died of bird flu in Asiatic Turkey, apparently from playing with dead chickens. http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/01/06/turkey.birdflu/index.html

Jan. 9, 2006. Five more are infected in Turkey, with bird infection apparently reaching Istanbul. Benjamin Harvey, “The Sentinel”, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/T/TURKEY_BIRD_FLU?SITE=MIHOL&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT As of 1/11 the total infected was 15 and there was some quarantining, even in Istanbul.

Jan. 10, 2006, Joyce Howard Price wrote a report on The Washington Times, “Study Questions Bird-Flu Paranoia,”

http://washingtontimes.com/national/20060110-122729-6822r.htm about a Swedish study in Asia, although it is unclear that many of the recovered persons with mild symptoms really had been infected. This report would comport with The New Republic op-ed by Fumento.

Jan. 11, 2006, Maggie Fox, “New Test Could Monitor Bird Flu Virus Mutations,”


The article seems to indicate that it would take very little mutation to make the virus more transmissible from human to human. The avian form seems to infect many the GI tract or gut. To become more transmissible, the orthomyxovirus needs an affinity for the surface markers of human bronchial or lung cells.

Jan. 12, 2006 Daniel Williams and Alan Sipress, “Bird Flu Mutation of Concern, Experts Say: Health Officials Play Down Fear of Pandemic in Turkey,” The Washington Post, p. A12. The virus seems to be mutating but has not necessarily become easily transmissible, as discussed above.

Anita Manning, "Are fears of a pandemic exaggerated," USA Today, Jan. 17, 2006. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-01-17-bird-flu_x.htm?csp=N009 Marc Siegel, a medical school professor at New York University School of Medicine, has a book published by Wiley: Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know about the Next Pandemic.

Jan. 24, 2006. Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and warned the public that there could be 90 million infections, 45 million that are symptomatic, and 2 million deaths. He claims that in the Spanish flu in 1918 7% of infected people between 20 and 40 died. 55% of infected pregnant women died. Osterholm warned that the virus targets young adults with healthy immune systems (an irony considering our experience with AIDS) because it causes immune overload (a “cytokine storm”) as the individual drowns in his own lung secretions. He was critical of our lack of commitment to a vaccine in our public policy. He warned that individuals could need food for four weeks in a pandemic. He expressed particular concern over events in Turkey. Another serious problem is that the “just in time economy” inventory philosophy endangers the public in dealing with an epidemic. Avian influenza affects more organs (including the GI tract) than does ordinary influenza. Dr. Osterholm warned also about the triage that would be necessary; there might be a need to reserve ventilators and other treatment for younger people.

Jan. 26, 2006. Maggie Fox. Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, provided a report “Bird flu viruses carry unique genes: study.” The story reports that the avian flu viruses carry genes that cause them to make forms of the NS proteins (NS1 and MS2) in cells much more destructive to cells than common human influenze viruses. It is possible that a mutation that made the H5N1 viruses more contagious person to person (that is, easily infection to respiratory tract surfaces) would make these proteins less destructive.

Feb. 28 2006. A cat dies of H5N1 infection in Germany near a dock where sea birds congregate. Some cats have died of H5N1 in Thailand. This is the first mammal to die in Europe.

Feb 28, 2006 Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent for Reuters, writes, "Encourage sick leave in flu pandemic, firms urged." Half of all workers have no paid sick leave, and corporate culture, especially for salaried workers, encourages coming in to work sick. Telecommuting can help.

March 13, 2006. ABC News will start a special report on bird flu or "World News Tonight." The "Good Morning America" segment was particularly alarming. It suggested that infected birds will soon migrate to North America from Russia through the Bering Straits and Alaska. Vigorous quarantines will be in place if the virus mutates into a form that is easily transmissible among primates. For example, all members of an international flight could be held in quarantine for hours if a person shows symptoms and for days if the person tests positive for H5N1. According to early morning reports, Homeland Security is already suggesting that American stockpile food and water "just in case." Scientists claim that there is 50-50 chance of a major mutation resulting in easy transmission. One interesting parallel would be to the right wing speculations in the 1980s that HIV could undergo a similar mutation, but in the latter case HIV would have to change completely in nature and probably would become much less deadly. It is likely that if H5N1 adapted readily to the human host it would become less virulent in time, but would cause tremendous mortality and morbidity and economic disruptions for some time.

The presentation was called "A Closer Look: Bird Flu: Fears, Facts and Fiction: What Every American Should Know." Michael Leavitt of HHS was interviewed. There are now some vaccine doses for H5N1 but there is now a second strain spreading rapidly. It could take only until mid April for H5N1 to reach birds in Alaska and August for it to reach birds in the lower 48 states.

ABC News has a four-page report by Adrienne Mand Lewin, "How Will Bird Flu Change Your Life? A Look at What Could Happen at Work, Home, School, and Your Community," March 13, 2006, at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AvianFlu/story?id=1706048&page=1 (through page=4). The report is alarming. It maintains (in a quote of Dr. Joseph Argis of Houston) that mutation to a human-to-human readily contagious form is inevitable, but that the disease is likely to become less virulent as it reaches North America. The report goes on to analyze responses, and the tone of the report, while healthfully recommending telecommuting for many companies, tends to suggest that strict quarantines and long term business and school closings are preferable to trying to "get by." The report does mention that many people do not have paid sick leave and tend to be motivated by "presenteeism" which could be deadly with this virus. Another factor is that many companies have merged sick leave and vacation as personal leave, effectively penalizing people who take sick leave (even for sick kids, a point that I belabored in Chapter 5 of my first book). Many business models could be destroyed by forced closings, as in the entertainment and restaurant industries. Socially, an epidemic could reinforce "family values" or "people first" cultural values favored by social and religious conservatives.

ABC "Nightline" broadcast a small report on March 13, 2006, centered around bird flu in sub-Saharan Africa. The poorest country of all, landlocked Niger, was shown, where chickens are used as currency. Still, no documented human deaths from avian flu have occurred, despite the endemic poverty that helped contribute to AIDS. Dr. Anthony Fauci from NIH was then interviewed. He pointed out that a major strategy when migratory birds reach the United States will be preventing them from having contact with chickens on farms, keeping poultry indoors and sheltered, a strategy that seems to be working in the European Union. However, the mutation to a contagious form and the introduction of a single known such case into the general population will immediately raise quarantine issues, a debate that the gay community learned in the 1980s when it was brought up in a rather phony fashion with respect to HTLV-III / HIV.

ABC "Good Morning America" on March 14, 2006 continued the report with a segment on what a home needs to keep stocked in case of any catastrophe (which can include storms and terrorism as well as pandemics). The recommendation is ten days' supply, including one gallon of potable water per person, and multiple canned and dried foods and many other emergency supplies.

ABC "World News Tonight" on March 14 2006 featured a spot on Robert Webster at St. Jude's Hospital (Memphis, TN), original discoverer of H5N1 in 1997. Webster claimed to have a three month stockpile of essentials at home and believed that a contagion mutation was inevitable. He said we have never had a major contagious infectious disease that could kill 50% of the people it infects.

The ABC story by Jim Avila and Meredith Ramsey is "Renowned Bird Flu Expert Warns: Be Prepared. There are "about even odds" that the virus could mutate to an easily transmitted form, he tells "World News Tonight" " at http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/AvianFlu/story?id=1724801&page=1

There was a more detailed account of home preparedness on March 17, 2006 on World News Tonight.

March 21, 2006: (WHO) Bird flu cause five deaths in young people in Azerbaijan, and these could have come from swans. Most human deaths have been associated only with chickens so far. It is not clear yet whether any human-human transmission has occurred.

Osterholm at the University of Minnesota has indicated that there is definitely some indication of some intra-familial transmission in a few of the cases overseas.

According to the Associated Press (Ben Feller), "Schools Told to Prepare for Bird Flu" school systems are being advised to prepare contingency plans for extended outages of snow days, especially being able to assign homework over the homework.

April 15, 2006: Elisabeth Rosenthal: "Bird Flu Virus May Be Spread By Smuggling" The New York Times, gives a story in which poultry, possibly infected, is smuggled into Milan, IT.

April 16, 2006: Ceci Connolly, "U.S. Plan for Flu Pandemic Revealed: Multi-Agency Proposal Awaits Bush's Approval," The Washington Post. The article reports that a normal flu year causes 36000 deaths in the United States; a moderate pandemic could cause 210,000 deaths; a severe pandemic, 1.9 million deaths. There are plans for closing public assemblies and even producing currency. Retired federal employees and military could be called back. Again, there seems to be some evidence that even pandemic strains actually cause many undetected cases with mild symptoms, as that may have happened in 1918. It is possible that young adults, with robust immune systems, may be more susceptible. There are some plans to redirect anti-viral medications to protect entire exposed families. It seems we are still lagging on vaccine development and production if this threat is real.

Urgent: Can a partially effective vaccine based on H5N1 proteins and surface geometry markers (both strain groups) be made more quickly, for mass innoculations by next fall?

An experimental vaccine was given to 451 adults ages 18 to 64, and was only partially effective. CNN, March 29, 2006: http://www.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/03/29/birdflu.vaccine/index.html

http://www.scienceagogo.com/news/20060026231144data_trunc_sys.shtml (successful animal tests)




Look at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/ or http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/fluviruses.htm





Global Warming

Probable Cause on Global Warming and Energy Crisis

In July 1971 I was almost arrested for trespassing on coal company strip mines near Davis, W. VA while taking pictures of wastelands and mountaintop box cuts. That’s the closest I ever came to legal consequences for any political demonstration. As it was, I sat in a smoke-filled coal trip cabin as we rode around the mine and I was shown their attempts at reclamation.

In 1972 I would make another trip to coal country, this time to the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” near the Virginia-Kentucky border, not too far from historic Cumberland Gap. An ex roommate from graduate school would meet me. We would see miles of devastation that reminded one of war. Radio commentators would claim that the entire Allegheny region west of the eastern continental divide would some day be stripped flat for deeper seams of coal. “Our children will find that our mountains are gone,” said one columnist, as if echoing prophecies in Isaiah.

Then in 1973 we would have the oil shocks, in the wake of major confrontations in the Middle East. At the beginning of 1974 we would be considering gasoline rationing. We wound up long gasoline lines and with an even-odd system for a while, but by spring of 1974 it seemed like the shortages disappeared mysteriously when prices increased. We would have a reprise of the shortages in 1979 after the upheavals in Iran.

All of this was important to me personally. I was having my “second coming out” then, and personal mobility was crucial to my life. It was, in a sense, a source of “false power.” Severe rationing could have been draconian, and targeted singles in proportion to families, for example.

In the mid 1980s, Saudi Arabia and other oil exporting countries increased production, reducing prices and actually causing a real estate recession in oil states like Texas. We would claim we had learned our lessons, that energy problems were essentially market driven. So wrote the conservatives.

We would get through the first Persian Gulf War without major shortages, and even escaped them after the 9/11 attacks. On the surface, it seems that we can indeed produce our way out of trouble. The areas of Appalachia that I had visited and explored as a young adult look much cleaned up now from how they had looked in the early 1970s.

Nevertheless, we remain dangerously dependent upon oil from unstable areas of the world. The Saudi oil fields and ports make obvious big time targets for terrorists. There has been disruptive political instability in non-Arab oil producing countries like Nigeria and Venezuela. Demand from developing, pseudo-communist countries (China) is driving prices of crude oil up, especially in the face of fear of terrorist attacks or supply disruptions. Therefore, in the summer of 2005, there has been a record runup on pump gasoline prices, but few actual shortages or lines. There have also been reputable claims that the Persian Gulf may have pumped its easily obtained oil reserves much sooner than generally expected.

American demand for petroleum products fuels anti-American sentiments and terrorist ideology. America (and the West in general) is perceived as trying to exploit poor peoples in oil-rich parts of the world for below-market prices. Oil interests probably do explaim American presence in Saudi Arabia (and Iraq), which helps drive the wrath of Osama bin Laden and radical Islam. The debate gets mixed up with American support of Israel, which predates the 1970s oil crises and is motivated by other historical and political factors, not oil itself. (I do think that Israel was wrong to grab lands in the Middle East at various points in history, but that gets beyond the scope of what I can cover here.)

The international tensions will extend to the global warming debate. Here we have to say that, given the temperature rise with increasing derivative in recent years, there is probable cause, but maybe not quite enough proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that human burning of hydrocarbons is slowly increasing global temperatures. Of course, it is true that global temperatures have often risen and fallen before human activity was a factor.

It would seem that global warming would come on slowly and not produce a sudden, catastrophic effect on open society. Polar latitudes and those farthest from the equator would be affected the most, with melting of icecaps and a gradual rise in sea level that could inundate some coastal cities, including New Orleans, and could remove substantial coastal real estate. The flooding of coastal areas could actually happen rather suddenly, especially with violent storms (like Katrina). Warming could also occur suddenly if frozen methyl hydrates (deep in polar oceans) were suddenly melted and released as another greenhouse gas. The climate in temperate zones would be warmer and drier, but with more extreme storms. I lived in Minneapolis from 1997 to 2003 and found the winters much milder and easier to take than what I had expected, with above freezing temperatures and melting on many mid winter days. However, the possibility for great, sudden catastrophe exists. The Gulf Stream could be affected, suddenly making northern Europe much colder. And there are theoretical models where a sudden polar super storm could develop, as in the 2004 film “The Day After Tomorrow.”

And global warming poses the same political problems as energy consumption. It is likely to be exacerbated by the growing fossil fuel use by developing countries, most of all China. The refusal of the United States to cooperate with Kyoto accords sends a message that Americans, who had a head start in line on fossil fuel use, won’t make any sacrifices. The politics will be complicated by the tendency for peoples with higher standards of living to have fewer children.

Can we produce our way out of this? As for oil, it remains to be seen whether a stable price for oil will really lead to novel production increases, from relatively untapped resources in Russia or former republics (with a pipeline through formerly Taliban Afghanistan), or synthetic sources such as from Canadian tar sands or oil shale, or even indirectly from coal. Many of these have serious mining environmental issues. May alternative fuel models for cars have been proposed, including hydrogen fuel cells. In tropical countries (Brazil) sugar cane has been found to be an efficient renewable energy source (for alcohol fuels), and this would certainly reduce petroleum dependency; it is not clear what the effect would be on carbon dioxide emissions over long periods. Could an infrastructure of alternate fuels be set up all over the world allowing automobile mobility comparable to what we have today? Enormous calculation and planning would be required. School science fairs ought to interest students in various aspects of these problems. What would be the affect on energy stocks? (I have to admit that the runup of Exxon-Mobil has been very fortunate for me in “retirement,” as I had bought it during the 70s energy crisis.) Nuclear fission power is probably much cleaner in terms of emissions but presents enormous waste problems and therefore opportunities for terrorist compromise. When I was the head of an “Understanding” unit in New York in 1978, one of the supporters wanted to get me behind an anti-nuclear power initiative (this was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl). Hydroelectric power is subject to drought. Nuclear fusion is an unknown in terms of practicality and breakthroughs. The most fundamentally sound power source should be solar, as well as wind, which would increase in warmer climates. The recent Scientific American issue emphasizes energy efficiency in terms of weight of vehicles and waste of energy in transmission. Energy concerns are bound to tie up creative attention of many people in small practicalities for decades, taking time in adaptive problems and away from more creative enterprises. They can have social consequences, regarding the ability of creative but unsettled individuals to roam in the independent fashion of the past forty or so years. The fact that energy and climate problems runs man up against the apparently finite nature of a relatively small planet will inevitably tend to push people back toward more collective views of big-scale problems and of the responsibilities for sharing of the individuals affected.

A very recent observation, well documented on PBS Nova in 2006, is “global dimming”, the reduction in sunlight due to particulate pollution, which compresses daily temperature ranges and offsets global warming. Reducing solid pollution (perhaps an outcome of using alcohol fuels instead of fossil fuels) could effectively increase global warming if carbon dioxide emissions were not somehow reduced. In the few days when planes were grounded after September 11, 2001, the absence of jetliner contrails actually increased daily temperature range in the United States by two degrees.

We all do know what happened to Venus, one planet away. Maybe it once had life.

©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

Suggested reading: The September 2005 Special Issue of Scientific American, “Crossroads for Planet Earth”

The August 2005 issue of National Geographic, “After Oil”

Bill on major issues

This blog will present overviews of several major "mainstream" public policy issues.

There is a lot more at http://www.doaskdotell.com/controv/

All of these blogs Copyright C 2006 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.
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