Years ago, in graduate school, I took a “soft” course among my harder science courses to round out my public health degree. In it, we read a newagey sounding book called “The Arrogance of Humanism” by David Ehrenfeld.
"Humanism", as the author meant it, was the belief in the primacy of humanity, the ability of humans to exert control over nature and society. His argument was that if we (humans) place worth only in things that directly benefit or affect us and believe that we have the ability and right to control our environment, we are doomed to the failure of our own humanism. This concept always stuck with me, although I view it with less of a religious slant than perhaps the author intended. I’ve seen evidence of it popping up in the news lately, as I’d like to share.
The New York Times recently reported that use of a newly-approved systemic herbicide, Imprelis, is suspected in the deaths of thousands of Norway spruces, eastern white pines, and other trees across the country. Imprelis is one of a new class of herbicides that disrupts gene expression, resulting in undifferentiated cell division and elongation (lovely). Imprelis is marketed to lawn-care professionals to control broadleaf weeds in cool-season lawn grasses.
After its first season of use, conifers that were growing in or near grassy areas treated with Imprelis were showing signs of brown and twisted new growth, often resulting in the death of the tree. A press release from the manufacturer of Imprelis, DuPont, indicated it was investigating reports related to “unfavorable symptoms” observed on certain tree species, giving guidance on how to treat, dispose, or replace trees affected by Imprelis, and restating the label directions that composting of grass clippings or chipped wood from an Imprelis-affected tree is prohibited.
What astounds me most was that this product was tested and found to pose acceptable risks, yet clearly not enough was understood about how the product works and moves in the environment to predict or prevent this tree death. The hubris of our chemical industry and regulatory system to believe it can develop toxic chemicals for dispersal in the environment and not experience unexpected results is a great example of the arrogance of humanism.
Another example of this arrogance is the misuse or overuse of antibiotics that can result in bacterial antibiotic resistance. With antibiotic treatment, a few bacteria with a generic mutation may survive the antibiotic, and will pass that trait onto offspring. With repeated exposure over many generations, this can result in a bacterial strain that is resistant to that antibiotic.
In June, a new strain of gonorrhea was discovered that is resistant to all known forms of antibiotics (again, lovely). More than 90 percent of Staphylococcus aureus (“Staph”) infections are now resistant to penicillin, and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections comprise more than 50 percent of health-care associated staph infections. In studies, nearly 17 percent of tuberculosis cases in China are reportedly multi-drug resistant. Drug-resistant strains of Salmonella, a leading cause of food-borne illness, are on the rise.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resistant strains of three specific organisms that cause disease in humans - Salmonella, Camphylobacter, and E-coli - are directly linked to the use of antibiotics in animals. Eighty percent of antibiotics in the United States are administered to poultry, hogs, and cattle and, in 2009, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics were used in livestock at subtherapeutic doses to prevent infections caused by their unnatural corn-based diets.
Antibiotic use allows the industry to “grow” food animals faster and in tighter and less healthy environments at a lower cost. Reports have been published since the 1960s on the misuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals, yet to date these warnings have gone unheeded. Recent FDA draft guidance entitled “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals” (June 2010) is still sounding the bell and recommending limiting medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals.
The pervasive and unrestrained use of antibiotics in our food supply exposes all of us to low-level antibiotics, as well as to drug-resistant bacteria. This could lead to serious infections or even epidemics in the future for which we will not be prepared. For all of the good that antibiotics have done, this uncontrolled use is yet another example of an attempt to control our environment for our own (economic) benefit while ignoring possible future ramifications.
A little humility is in order here. When we start to think of ourselves as part of the environment (or planet or ecosphere or whatever term you are comfortable with) rather than its master, we may fare better. After all, we are just smart little monkeys, nothing more. Nature has its own rules and patterns that we can barely understand. And when we attempt to tweak it so that we can have the most bananas, we hurt ourselves in the end.