Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Heal the Racial and Other Divisions within Us

W. E. Du Bois, in his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men.”  In the United States, that relationship and the resulting divisions between the groups has, despite all the civil rights laws and court decisions, not progressed to a circumstance of comfort, amity, and equality between the races.  

People of color are materially better off now than in the past, but the basic issues of prejudice and discrimination and their resulting status at the bottom rung of American society remain essentially unchanged.  This festering sore is always present and has a negative impact on the lives of individuals and our country in millions of instances every day.  That racial riots are not the norm does not mean that all is well.

But the problem of the color-line is not the only division that is rending the social fabric of the United States.  Historically there were major divisions between white Protestants and Roman Catholics, between Christians and Jews.  But those divisions have largely lapsed into dormancy.  The commonality of whiteness seems to have enabled age-old prejudices to become a relic, the appendix of society, but like the appendix capable of exploding causing much disruption given the right circumstances.

Over the past decade, however, a new division has emerged, most clearly identified by the emergence of the Tea Party Republicans.  This is not a mere political movement, a more radical conservatism.  The Tea Party represents a major new social division in our country.  Although Tim Burns connects this division with the one that took place during the Vietnam War between the “my country right or wrong” group and those protesting the war.

Why do I say that?  Because it marks a new demarcation of us v them.  Politicians, no matter how great their differences, have never viewed themselves as social antagonists, as us v them.  That is why they have always been able to form strong friendships and even loyalties outside of the halls of Congress.  (The one exception to this would be the Southern Democrats, who because of the race question did view the other side as us v them.)

The election of Donald Trump, the darling of the Tea Party, has spawned its equally rabid counterpart on the left, the Resistance, making matters even more difficult.  Both of these sides, who will brook no compromise with the other, are at least at this point in time a threat to our democracy.

How do we deal with these divisions, heal them, enabling it to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “rise up and live out the meaning of its creed, ‘that all men are created equal.’”  And in so doing, strengthen our country.  Is there a common thread that runs through these various divisions that would enable us, through wise government policy and education, to at last move us beyond these divisions?  I think there is.

One common thread running through many of these divisions is the lack of equal treatment, both in reality and in the eyes of the beholder.  People of color, especially blacks, have never been treated equally by government.  Whether one looks at segregated federal housing policy or unequal educational opportunity … never mind the blatant discrimination of southern state governments … people of color have suffered from direct and indirect government discrimination.  

On the other hand, many whites, especially middle and working class, viewed the federal government as bending over backwards to help people of color, spending billions of dollars. while not doing much of anything to help them.  They are not against big government in the form of social security and Medicare.  They are against big government programs that help the poor (predominantly people of color).  This is the basic position of the Tea Party.

This ties into the other major thread running through these division … the fear of economic competition, the loss of jobs, the loss of status.  If one looks at the South, certainly the enmity of whites towards blacks had everything to do with fear of the potential power of the black masses, their upending the social status of whites, and their retaliation against their white suppressors.  

Within the working class in the North and the unions, in the first half of the 20th century, employers often took advantage of or fomented anger and violence against blacks by pitting the two races against each other for jobs.  That resentment is seen today in the form of white opposition to affirmation action, both in the workplace and in upper education.  Similarly, immigration opponents routinely rouse their base by arguing that  hispanics and especially illegal aliens are taking away jobs from American workers who need them.

That this anger and violence is manufactured can be seen in the rare opposite case of Consolidation Coal Co. and its company town of Buxton, IA in the first warter of the 20th century.  Consolidation Coal made it their business to promote good relations among white and black workers and both were treated fairly.  The result was an unheard of utopia of integration and race relations.

How does this thread of fear relate to the Tea Party phenomenon?  It’s not so much that they fear economic dislocation by blacks or latinos, but that they fear their economic position has deteriorated, which is an indisputable fact, and that it will never recover because the jobs are gone due to government support of free trade deals and yet the government has done nothing to help them.  They fear the loss of their status.  They think that, as Reagan said, government is the problem, not the solution, and so they want less government (except as noted above when it benefits them).

For the nativists within the Tea Party movement, their economic fear is clothed in the fear for the country’s identity.  Whether by flower children or immigrants, they feel the country is being attacked by people who don’t belong here, who don’t honor the country, and thus threaten it’s existence as a place hospitable them.  This criticism and dislike extends to liberals because they are not sufficiently pro-American and support those attacking the government.

Other factors often mentioned regarding our divisions, most prominently those people are different from us, all feed off these basic themes of a lack of equal treatment and the fear of economic or status loss.  If people were treated equally and if they didn’t have the fear of dislocation, the fact of differing cultures would have much less relevance and power.

So it comes down to two things.  First, people want to be treated equally.  Second, people want their economic status to be protected.  There is no question in my mind that if one were starting with a relatively clean slate that it would be possible to treat everyone equally and protect their status.  Despite the fact that politicians have pitted one set of interests against another, they are not inherently in conflict.

However, we are not starting with a clean slate.  We are starting at a point of great inequality, economically and otherwise, as well as great emotion.  And so where do you start the process of bringing our society to a state of equilibrium?

A possible starting point can be found in my post, “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves,”  11/13/15.  The points of that post cannot be neatly summarized in a few words.  Suffice it to say that it will require each of us to rethink our relationship to ourselves and to the world around us.  Not a minor undertaking!  But not impossible either.    I urge you to read it.

Only then will be open to accepting the steps and sacrifices necessary to bring our country to a point of equilibrium where we truly live out the words of the Declaration of Independence.  Where all people are treated equally, where all people have equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This is so important to both our own individual happiness as well as to the happiness and well-being of our country that we are mad if we do not at least make an effort to achieve a more humane, civilized society.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Amorality of Donald Trump - Part 4

It is beyond distressing that the President, the elected leader of our country, continues to provide more examples from his own words and actions of his amorality.  

In his rants against NFL players who bend the knee when the national anthem is played, he showed absolutely no understanding of the plight of most black Americans in this country: the ongoing experience of discrimination, the ongoing examples of prejudice that show many of their white fellow citizens consider them to be lesser beings, the poor schooling their children receive, the wretched conditions in which they live. As a result many have a lack of hope for any meaningful improvement in their or their children’s lives.

First black Americans had their hopes dashed after emancipation proved meaningless.  Then reconstruction failed.  Then the effort to be industrious workers and submit to their right-less status, following the lead of Booker T. Washington, failed.  Then the effort to gain respect through education failed.  Most recently, the effort to gain freedom through civil rights failed.

Every effort that has been put to black Americans to gain equality they have embraced with the hope of experiencing what Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his “I have a dream” speech:  “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”  Yet those efforts have left them with little.  Certainly black Americans are materially better off than ever before.  But regarding the elusive goal of equality in the eyes of their fellow citizens, after 150 years that day is still a long way off.  

W. E. Du Bois put it this way, “Emancipation was the key to a promised land.” But it proved to be but a “tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp.”  “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the door of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

For some, the door may not be closed as roughly as it once was, but it is still closed.  Even the most liberal of Americans have some racism under their skin, if they are truthful.  This country has never had the frank and brutal discussion of race relations that is needed to purge us all of any remnant of racism.

On another matter, the President has again had the opportunity in recent days to take the high road, this time regarding gun control.  But even in the face of the carnage in Las Vegas, he does not see the plight of his fellow Americans.  He mouths the words of commiseration, but he does not really feel what they, and so many before them, feel.  Because the man has no empathy.  If he did, he would pivot 180 degrees and lead the fight for reasonable, meaningful, gun control.

There is no question in my mind that Donald Trump suffered greatly as a child.  As a result he is a seriously insecure man and continues to suffer as an adult.  His over-the-top egotism, his paper-thin skin, his need for absolute loyalty, all are proof positive of the depths of his insecurity and suffering.

But as tortured as he may be, that does not absolve him of responsibility for what he doing to this country.  The only way to save our country is to remove him from office as quickly as possible by the legal means provided in the Constitution.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Increase in Social Media and Autism - Coincidence or Causal?

Over the last 4 decades, the number of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders has grown at an astonishing rate.  In the 1970s and 1980s, about one out of every 2,000 children was estimated to have autism.  In the year 2,000, with a broader definition and better diagnosis, the CDC estimated that one in 150 8-year-olds in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.  

Since that time, prevalence rates have increased 10 - 17% annually.  By 2012, the ASD estimate had risen to 1 in 68 8-year-olds.  “There is no established explanation for this increase.” 

Autism/ASD is mental disorder caused by variations in the brain’s development.  These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communications, and repetitive behaviors.  More specifically, children with autism demonstrate either “deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors, and deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships.”

I became interested in this issue because a close friend of mine has custody of a grandchild who has ASD.  Recently my friend asked me, because I had written the book, Raising a Happy Child, if I had any ideas on what might help his interactions with the child.  Knowing very little about the disorder, I did some quick research which uncovered the information conveyed above.

What do we know about the cause of autism/ASD?  Prior to the 70s, autism was thought to be caused by bad parenting, “unloving mothers.”  That theory has been thoroughly debunked. 

Instead, research has shown that a number of genes are connected with autism.  Further, a number of environmental factors before and during birth, that influence early brain development and thus increase the risk, have been identified.  They include advanced parental age, maternal illness, extreme prematurity, very low birth weight, and certain difficulties during birth involving periods of oxygen deprivation.  Also, mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution may be at greater risk of having an autistic child.

Clearly, the factors identified by science to-date could not even begin to explain this rapid increase in the rate of autism/ASD.  In looking briefly at several recent symposia on the subject, no new ideas were identified.  There was just hope in identifying “modifiable risk factors” as we better understand why the prevalence of ASD has increased.

When I first read the definition of autism noted above, I had a “duh” moment.  The definition, with the possible exception of repetitive behaviors, almost exactly tracks what researchers are finding is the negative result of compulsive use of modern technology … the internet, computer games, smart phones, social media.  

We’ve all seen the phenomenon.   Whether on the subway, in the theater, on the street … people of all ages, not just the young but older Americans as well, seem unable or unwilling to be disconnected from their technology tool, their new umbilical cord, for an unnecessary moment.  It has become an addictive behavior. 

I knew from research I had done when writing my book that “stress in the womb can affect a baby's temperament and neurobehavioral development. ‘Who you are and what you’re like when you are pregnant will affect who that baby is,’ says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. ‘Women's psychological functioning during pregnancy – their anxiety level, stress, personality -- ultimately affects the temperament of their babies. It has to ... the baby is awash in all the chemicals produced by the mom.’” So it certainly seemed possible that an obsessive compulsive social media addiction would have an impact.

After I had done my initial research, I responded to my friend and indicated my hunch that the appearance of the new technology and its compulsive use during pregnancy probably has a strong correlation with the increase in ASD prevalence.  He responded by telling me that, interestingly, the ASD boy’s mother had been a compulsive computer gamer, including during pregnancy, and also didn’t take very good care of herself.  The boy is also a compulsive gamer.

With that single confirmation, I decided to delve deeper into the existing research.  The new definition and diagnostic criteria for ASD was developed in the early 1990s.  It’s probably reasonable to assume that the difference between the estimated prevalence prior to the broadened criteria for ASD diagnosis and post are mostly due to the new criteria as well as greater awareness.

However, in the period since ASD was defined, the criteria has been constant and the awareness consistently high.  So what accounts for the rapid increase since that time?

If one looks more closely at the CDC prevalence estimates, one sees a pretty stable figure prior to 1996 births, 1 in 150.  This finding is almost identical with a British study done during the early 90s.  Between 1996 and 2004 births, however, the prevalence increased to 1 in 68 children.  

More recent CDC data are not available (the report on 8-year-olds in 2012, thus born in 2004, was issued in 2016).  However a report from a 2015 government survey of parents found that 1 in 45 children, age 3  - 17, have been diagnosed with ASD.  Since the source of the data is different, though, one can’t conclude that the prevalence has increased further.  It may indicate an increase or it may indicate that the CDC data source is not as accurate and that the earlier prevalence rates were actually higher.  Either way, it’s not good.

During this period of rapid ASD prevalence growth, commercial internet and social media use took off (in the late 1990s) and grew exponentially.  A Pew Research study found that between 2005 and 2013, the use of social media by adults increased from 7% to 62%.  Since then the increase has leveled off and the last reading was 65% in 2015.  This survey, however, did not measure frequency or duration of use, which from observation appears to have increased significantly.

While the Pew data start where the CDC data leave off, we nevertheless know from it that between the late 1990s when social media started to 2005, the usage rose from 0 - 7%.  A huge percentage increase.  If I’m on the right track, the scary question is what the set of CDC data will look like from children born after 2010.

And there’s one more point.  The current research assumes that all factors impacting ASD development cease the moment one is born.  It considers no post-birth environmental factors.  Yet research has shown that a child’s brain continues significant structural development at least until age 3, with further development continuing until adolescence.  

It’s a very common sight these days to see even 2-3 year-olds staring at their little screens, watching a program or game while in their strollers, accompanying their parents at a restaurant, or elsewhere.  It’s becoming the new pacifier.  I cannot but think that it will have an impact on autism prevalence.

I cannot go any further with this line of reasoning from the available data.  However, I think that the connection, being both evident and sufficiently strong, points to the need for the CDC, or other appropriate federal agency, to gather information on the computer/social media habits of mothers during pregnancy.  And that data needs to include not just how many sites she visits (as was the case with the Pew data), but the frequency and duration of her visits.  Since it does not appear that such data would be able to be retrieved through the CDC’s ADDM data gathering system, a survey would most likely have to be employed.  Data on toddlers’/young children’s exposure to computer games/programs also need to be gathered.

Testing my hypothesis is of upmost importance.  I would even say urgent, given the ubiquitous nature of obsessive social media use prevalent today in our society.  If indeed more children are being born with ASD due to this risk factor, then every pregnant woman needs to be given a health advisory to stay off social media during her pregnancy.  This should be treated no differently than advice given to pregnant women to avoid other harmful behavior, whether it’s smoking, taking drugs, or eating fish from contaminated rivers.  And the use of devices by toddlers should be restricted.

If my hypothesis is correct but left unaddressed, this development could have more impact on the future health and vitality of our country than almost any problem we are currently facing.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Changing the Direction of President Trump

Until two weeks ago, the political reality of the Trump administration had been defined by rabid feelings for it on the part of its core base of support, and rabid feelings against it on the part of the Democrat’s base.  This reality, and its reflection in Congress, left Trump feeling that his only hope for success was to do everything possible to please his core supporters, the only people he could depend on.

Trump has never been an ideologue.   He certainly has very little in common with his core supporters.  But he used what he knew would work to get himself elected.  I do not even believe that Trump is a racist, a homophobe, or a white supremacist/anti-semite, at least no more so than the average person.  But he is an opportunist and amoral, so he will do anything that he sees working to his benefit.

And therein lies the opportunity.  I have previously advised that the only hope of changing the direction of this administration, or at least ameliorating its harmful impact, is by convincing Trump that it is to his advantage to tone down if not shift his more damaging directives.  

How?  By showing him that his only hope for major legislative successes is by working with Democrats in Congress, not his Republican colleagues.  This has now begun to happen, thanks to the smart work of Senator Schumer.

He wants these successes badly.  Whether it’s on infrastructure, tax reform, or health care reform, Democrats can give him the successes he wants while at the same time forwarding their own agenda and helping the average person.  

It's a win-win situation, except for the most rabid elements of the Democratic left.  But those elements should not be the drivers of policy.  Their support will not determine the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections.  It is the turnout by average working-class people and the poor that will make the difference.  

They must see that the Democratic party is working in very positive, direct ways to make their lives better.  Hillary lost in large part because of her loss of their strong support.  The Party must regain their trust and support.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Ever Wonder Why the World Is the Way It Is?

We live in a dysfunctional world.  Violence and conflict are all around us … within ourselves, within families, within societies, between nations.  How often do I hear people asking, “Why?”

The typical answer is some version of, “That’s just life,” or “It’s human nature.”  But that’s too easy and facile an answer.  The truth is more complicated and enlightening.  While it’s true that it is the way it is, it is not human nature; it’s human development.  That means it’s not inevitable; people can change.  We have a choice.

All religions depict life as a constant struggle between light and darkness.  In former times, that fight was often spoken of as being between God and the Devil. 

These days one hears little about the Devil for the same reason that most people don’t talk much about God.  The existence of these deities as external forces that control our lives, to whom we can on the one hand pray for deliverance or on the other bargain with for what we desire, just flies in the face of both our life experience and scientific knowledge.  Many have thus lost their belief in the God of our forefathers, if not declaring God dead.

But another concept of God is very much alive for those who walk the path of spirituality/mysticism … whether it’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, or Christian Gnosticism.  Their truth is that the Buddha/God essence is within each of us from the moment of our birth and remains there throughout our life.  

But that divine essence becomes hidden from us over the years, buried by successive layers of our ego-mind’s reaction to life’s experiences.  We become wounded by those experiences.  We become lost to our true selves.  And so we walk the path to reconnect, to rediscover our true selves.  Our salvation comes from within us, not from some outside force.  And so the eternal struggle is seen as being between our heart/soul and our ego-mind.

While we learn that the Buddha was tempted by Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of the Devil, I have never, I believe, heard the Devil mentioned when speaking of the challenge of healing ourselves, of ending our suffering. The reference is rather to freeing ourselves from the control of our ego-mind, it being the true source of our suffering, not the events we experience.  As the Buddha said, to free ourselves of the conceit “I am” is the ultimate freedom.

Recently, however, I felt the presence of the Devil.  I was having dinner with a friend who knows he has to limit his consumption of alcohol.  But he said he wanted a second glass of wine that night.  And that after dinner he wanted to go to some bars and have a beer like he does when he travels with other friends of his.  Knowing I would disapprove and say “no,” the expression on his face when he talked was a mocking one, sly.  I was aware of the strangeness of it at the moment, but I didn’t recognize it.  Only when I meditated the next morning, did I realize that I had been in the presence of the Devil.

I now understand that just as in some religions the Devil is thought to be a fallen angel,  in Buddhism, as well as the mystic traditions, the Devil can be equated with our ego-mind, which is our internal fallen angel/Buddha/God nature.  We have become so wounded repeatedly over the years that the ego-mind has no trust, no faith, and is consumed by fear; it has become cynical about the world around us.  It has overpowered our true self to “protect” us; we are in its control.  And so the Devil, our own Devil, is inside each of us; it is the nature of our ego-mind.

Ernestine, the Flip Wilson drag character, used to say, “The Devil made me do it!” In comic strips, a person was sometimes portrayed with an angel sitting on one shoulder whispering in his ear and the Devil sitting on the other doing the same, being confused by the competing advice; a graphic depiction of our internal Devil as well as our internal God-essence.   We have all experienced that.  So the concept is not foreign to our culture or experience.

I have written in previous posts how all the conflict and violence in the world, whether in the home, workplace, society or between nations is a result of the insecurity that man acquires from his life experiences.  (See my posts, “The Root of All Abuse and Violence - Insecurity” and “Insecurity as the Cause of Social Conflict and International War.”)  

That the ego-mind is not only filled with the fear, anxiety and self-centeredness (and often aggression) caused by insecurity but through continued wounding has acquired the lack of faith, trust, and cynicism of the Devil makes the dysfunction we observe all that more intractable.  And it explains the specter of evil that we see in all corners of the world.

This is why the world is the way it is.  It’s not because people are bad … there is no such thing as a bad person, just people who do bad things … or that humans are flawed.  It’s because our life experience has made us insecure and our ego-minds have reacted in a way which makes us a threat to our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  The greater our insecurity, the more of a threat we become.  At some point we become the Devil incarnate.

If one wants to save the world from itself, this insight offers a possible agent of change.  It may not only be very helpful in a practical way for those already struggling to free themselves from the control of their ego-mind, the control of their emotions and perceptions, it may encourage more people, both leaders and followers, to enter upon that path.

How?  We very much identify with our ego-mind.  Its feelings and perceptions are all we’ve known our entire life.  Even for those who walk the path of the spiritual/mystic traditions, while we come to learn that our feelings and perceptions are the cause of our suffering and are not a reflection of our true selves, the power of these feelings are often barely diminished because we find it hard to deeply disown them.  So powerful is the ego-mind.  

When push comes to shove, we always return to the perspective of our wounded self, our ego-mind.  We have not purged ourselves from its grip.  The roots in our self-perception go too deep.

Identifying the ego-mind with the Devil may be very helpful because that image does not conjure up “I.”  It conjures up instead trickery, deceit, doing something against one’s best interest, evil … which is in truth how the ego-mind operates and controls us.  

Most people, regardless their status in life, regardless their lack of spirituality, would not I believe want to self-identify with the Devil.  It thus may well open the door at least a crack to the light of their heart.  And encourage people to at least ponder walking the path in order to find the way to disown their ego-mind and say “no” to its guidance, thereby freeing themselves from its control and finding inner peace and happiness.

Each soul saved makes for a better world.  Religions have always taught that.  But now salvation rests with the individual, what he chooses to do with his life.  Whether he chooses light or darkness, peace or suffering, not with his belief in a God external to himself.  This spirituality is of the present moment.   Its reward is here and now in a life of peace and happiness, not a Heaven to be experienced after death.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

President Trump, Have You No Sense of Decency?

In 1954, during the Senate’s McCarthy Hearings, Joseph Welsh countered Senator McCarthy with the now-famous retort, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency, sir?”  This confrontation is generally considered to have been the beginning of the end for Senator McCarthy and his infamous hearings.

When will that time arrive when at least one Republican Senator, preferably a group, stands up and speaks those words to President Trump?  The list of instances in which he has acted dishonorably grows with each passing day.

He went after undocumented aliens in a mean, uncharitable, and dishonest way (he said he was only going after criminals, but the net he cast was much broader).  He went after a Muslim soldier who gave his life fighting for the U.S., as well as his parents.  He has made numerous misogynistic comments about women.  He went after transgender servicemen and those who wanted to serve in the military.  He went after the LGBT community by reducing their protection under the law in several ways.  Most recently, he stood by and refused to condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, even equating them with those who were protesting against them.

These are just the more prominent ways in which the President has shown that he has no morals, he has no ethics, he has no conscience.  In short, he has no decency.  He will do anything it he thinks it will maintain the support of the far-right, which is so far perhaps the most loyal part of his base.

Individual Senators have made comments disagreeing with the President's statements in most of these areas.  Certainly his reaction to the Charlottesville incident has drawn the most criticism from his Republican colleagues.

But even after Charlottesville, even after he under criticism made a clear statement of condemnation but the next day reverted to his previous equivocation, not a single Republican has had the courage to stand up to the President and say, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency, sir?”

This is one of the common themes that runs through the actions of this President.  And he must be held accountable at all times.  Lest we forget, and the American public has a very short memory, the Democratic party should maintain a public chart with this heading, listing all the examples where the President fails this test of moral leadership.

In closing with the following example, I am not equating Trump with Hitler in any way, but the example is still appropriate.  Pastor Niemöller, a well-known German Protestant minister, made the following statement regarding his actions during the Nazi period.  “First they came to get the Communists, and I said nothing.  Then they came to get the Jews, and I said nothing.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

If those with morals and ethics do not stand up clearly for what they believe and call on their colleagues to remove the President because he is unfit for office, they will in the end suffer defeat and ignominy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

For Being So Smart, Man Sure Has Made a Mess of Things

In his ceaseless quest for “progress,” man is creating an environment which is ever more inhospitable to man.  Many would call this statement an oxymoron.  The general wisdom is that progress makes our lives better, as embodied by the old DuPort slogan, “Better living through chemistry.”

Unfortunately the general wisdom, while in part undeniably true, has come at a terrible price for mankind.  The environment which sustains us and gives us life as well as our very humanity are being seriously compromised, possibly irreparably.  Let me count the ways - some much discussed, some less so.

Probably the most discussed way in which progress is creating a world inhospitable to man is the destruction of the environment.  The industrial revolution and the adoption of the automobile as the primary and preferred mode of transportation, combined with the rate of population growth and the emergence of newly-middle class populations particularly in China and India, have resulted in an exponential growth in the use of fossil fuels over the past century, especially in recent decades.  

From 1910 to the present, fossil fuel use has increased from a base of 1,000 to 11,000.  In the last 50 years alone, its use has increased almost 300%.  And while coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, does have a much smaller share of the total energy market today, what is rarely pointed out is that the actual amount of coal used world-wide is more now than ever; a 200+% increase since 1965.  

This increase in fossil fuel use is causing a change in the climate/weather parameters that man has depended upon to support his way of life for millennia.  (See my post, “Climate Disorder = Global Upheaval.”)   We are probably already past the tipping point.  The efforts of the international community to reduce carbon emissions may, if successful, slow the process, but it will not stop the process.  The news from scientists is always the same, “We didn’t think it would happen this quickly.”  But it has and continues to.

Beyond the use of fossil fuels, our use of chemicals in every conceivable product is causing mostly unknown damage to man.  Yes, a small number of chemicals have been studied and shown to be dangerous, and they have been taken off the market.   And there has been improvement, along certain parameters, in air and water quality under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. 

But vast numbers of chemicals have been released into the air, soil and water, and absorbed by our bodies, that have not been studied at all.  We simply have no idea what impact they will have.  We do know that illnesses, such as cancer, exist now in unheard of numbers and there is speculation that the air we breathe, the water we drink, etc. is the cause for this increase is disease prevalence.  But there is no proof.  

However, a rational person looking at the plethora of chemicals in our bodies, the air, the soil, and water would say that the most reasonable assumption is that these chemicals will have a negative impact on us.  How could they not, given the intricacy of the functioning of the environment and the human body.  And that they therefore should not be allowed unless proven to be safe.  Rather than the other way around, which is how we have operated.  The dictum of criminal law, “innocent until proven guilty,” has no place in this context.

Then there is the issue of technology.  Several decades ago, the development of new technology was touted as the harbinger of more leisure time, a shorter work week.  Instead,  just the opposite has happened.  With each new technological advancement, making it possible to do things more quickly or be available at all times, our lives have become more burdened.  Certainly people in white collar jobs work harder now than they ever did with less time for leisure and for family.  For many blue collar workers, technological progress has brought unemployment as their jobs have been eliminated by increasing automation. 

But there is a darker side to the impact of technology resulting from the use of smartphones and tablets in combination with the development of social media.  It’s obvious in just looking around that most people are connected to their electronic screens every moment when they are not otherwise occupied, and often even when they are.  Whether they’re in a restaurant with friends or family, standing in the subway, walking down a street, or even in the theater … there, those electronics don’t get turned off till the last possible second, and as soon as the lights come up, they are turned on again.

Numerous articles have been written stating that the use of social media has become an addiction and that the social skills of people, especially the young, who are obsessively absorbed with their electronics have been negatively impacted.  Their interpersonal skills have been weakened.  They shy away from real relationships and instead see their social media “friends” as relationships.  They are removed from whatever they are doing, they aren’t really there.   This so closely tracks the definition of autism that I recently wrote a post, “The Increase in Social Media and Autism - Coincidence or Causal?”  But few people seem to be paying attention to this threat.

Another topic that is rarely discussed is the impact of the automobile and tourism on our lives.  For centuries we have made our homes in cities, towns, and villages.  These were vibrant places … even the smallest village … with life and human interaction typically centered around the local grocery/general store or stores, sitting on porches and chatting with passersby, or otherwise being part of a community. 

Now tourism and the automobile have created a double whammy that has rendered almost every place, with the exception of the largest cities, either a perversion or shell of their former selves.  In the decades following WWII, many cities and towns suffered economically.  Those that could turned to tourism as a way to pour fresh blood into the local economy.  But due to the increased use of credit cards and the marketing prowess of the internet, tourism has in the last decade become an all-devouring monster for many communities.  

Yes, it brings in people and dollars, stores are no longer empty, but the cost to the lives of the people who live there has been great.  Whether it’s Charleston, Savannah, or Asheville, to name just a few, towns are now overrun with tourists.  And these are not mostly tourists who have a love of history, who want to savor the charms of the past.  It’s hard to know what drives them, but mostly they seem to be out for fun and a few minutes of enrichment.  With hordes of such tourists, who seem to have no respect for the place they are visiting, the beauty and pace of life that was, is no more.

Other cities and towns, who continued to prosper and grow after WWII, developed suburbs in response to population growth and the availability of the automobile.  With the new residential development came shopping malls filled not with local stores but chains. 

As a result of this growth, and people’s love of driving, even people who still live in cities or towns started driving out to the suburbs to do their shopping because they wanted name brands/chains.  And the stores in the new malls were larger, had a greater selection of merchandise, often at lower cost, than the smaller stores that existed in town.  So not only did many people with disposable incomes move out of the cities, but those that remained stopped shopping there.   

And so slowly, the small local stores that had been the hub of life in the cities/towns went out of business.  I experienced this first hand in my home town of Reading, PA.  When I was growing up in the 50s and on into the 60s, downtown Reading was a vibrant place.  That’s where people went to shop.  You knew and talked to the store owners, sales personnel, the butcher, etc.  But by the 80s, the suburbs and shopping malls had grown so much that downtown Reading collapsed.  It was no more.  Literally.  Now it has been turned into an office center.  

And this is not just an American experience.  A recent article in The New York Times noted that the same phenomenon has happened in France where many of the older cities/towns are filled with shuttered shops as people flock to the outskirts to shop in the new shopping malls.

So the progress offered by the freedom of the automobile together with that offered by the use of credit cards has resulted in a catastrophe for many cities and towns.  They are devoid of the life that they used to have.  The new suburbs are also devoid of this quality of life.  They aren’t towns in the old sense of the word; there is no commercial nucleus around which the towns exist and function.  It’s all sprawl.  Everything is totally car dependent … you can’t walk anywhere in post-WWII suburbs.  There is no community.

And so people’s lives have changed, and not for the better.  As an example of poetic justice, the technology of the internet is now threatening those very shopping malls as more and more people are shopping online; it’s convenient.  

In the largest cities, you do still have vibrant neighborhoods.  They have not been impacted by tourism or the automobile.  But here, community life has been drastically altered both by technology and the chase after the almighty dollar.  Everyone is so focused on their electronics and making money, on improving their status in life, that they have little time or energy for other people, even often their own family.  Yes, people still get together to have fun.  And parents and children cross paths at home.  But that seems to be all that it is.  There’s no energy for a deeper investment or interest in others.  

This is not nostalgia.  This is an assessment of how our interaction with each other, our sense of community (beyond rooting for the local sports franchise), has diminished.  And with that we have lost something very important as human beings.  We have created an atmosphere that is barely fit for human life.  For to be human is to interact with others, face to face on a personal level. 

So what does mankind have to show for all the “progress” we’ve made in the past few centuries, especially the last one?  We certainly have more wealth.  We have more creature comforts, a higher standard of living.  Household chores have been made easier.  Illnesses have been cured and people live longer.   These are not minor achievements. 

But in this Faustian bargain, we have set in motion an upheaval in our environmental habitat that will have major but unknown consequences for our lives and well-being.  We have polluted the air, soil, and water around us, as well as our bodies, with a multitude of chemicals, again with unknown but unquestionable consequence for our health.  We have each year created new technological advances, and yet our lives grow harder and the sap of human life is drained from us.  And the ubiquitous automobile together with credit-driven tourism has resulted in the demise of our cities, towns, and villages as places where humanity thrives.

In this post, I have discussed these issues from a very human-centric perspective.  Yet we ignore at our own peril the impact that our “progress” has had on the animals and plants with whom we share this planet and on whom we depend in so many ways for our survival.

I’ve written several posts on how we might find our way back to a more meaningful life.  (For example, see “Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves.”)  But given human dynamics, it seems highly unlikely that we will change direction barring some huge catastrophe which makes everyone stop and reassess our way of living.