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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card March 20, 2014

Plagues and Bad Weather

Two ice storms in March have closed Greensboro schools this year; combined with earlier snowstorms, this is one of our worst years for school closings. Record cold temperatures have swept across the United States.

Naturally, I hear comments like, "Any more of this global warming and I'm moving south."

But of course one year's local or continental weather says almost nothing about climate, or climate change. In the midst of global warm periods, there are bad winters; in the midst of ice ages, there are summer heat waves.

Climate is about major trends, and several clear cycles have emerged. We have ten- to twenty-year streaks of cooling or warming. It happens that we've been on a cooling streak since about 1990.

The fact that this makes utter hash of all the eco-hoaxers' predictions back in the 1980s is merely a pleasure, not a proof.

Then there are longer periods, like the Little Ice Age, which ran from about 1300 to 1850, a time of frequent crop failures and much disease -- the normal result of cooling periods.

Before that, the Medieval Climate Optimum was a warm period that lasted from 900 to 1300. Such periods -- like our own -- are linked with prosperity, population growth, and relatively good health. Even with all our carbon emissions, our current warm period has not yet become as warm as, say, 1000 a.d.

Which brings me to the obvious conclusion. As disasters go, global warming is the one we should pray for.

When the eco-faithful sermonize like old-time Puritans about the sins of the human race, what is the "hell" they prophesy? The main one is ice cap meltage, which, if it happens suddenly, can flood the ocean with fresh water.

There is speculation -- unprovable -- that this might trigger a change in ocean currents which would lead to anomalous cooling in Europe. (Remember that absurd Roland Emmerich ice storm movie The Day After Tomorrow, that had the change taking place in fifteen minutes, causing devastation in places not warmed by the gulf stream? Cute.)

But let's face it. Life has endured countless climate cycles, including weather much warmer than now, and much colder than the depths of the Little Ice Age. We are actually in an ice age right now -- one that began about three million years ago.

All of human history occupies a relatively brief warm spell that began with the end of the last glacial period about 10,000 BC. Agriculture seems to have been invented after the weather cleared up and sea levels began to rise.

With all the obvious, proven benefits of global warming, what is the worst that could happen?

1. It might end.

2. The ice caps might melt entirely.

If all the ice caps melt, then oceans will reach their maximum possible depth. Coastlines will shift. Cities that are now on the shore will be under water.

If it happened in a single huge tsunami, it would be a huge disaster. If the ocean rises a few inches a year, then we have plenty of time to relocate, rebuild, adjust, adapt.

Worst case: We stop insuring coastal vacation homes. The construction industry booms. Real estate values fall in some places, rise in others. New Orleans and Venice become sites for divers and glass-bottom-boat tourists. The people who used to live there, live somewhere else and feel wistful about their lost cities.

By contrast, all the steps proposed to try to block any global warming that might be caused by human carbon emissions are economically suicidal -- and would have no effect for centuries anyway. But the True Believers would have us plunge ourselves into global poverty by breaking down the great world economic system in order to prevent a "disaster" that people in 1500 would have prayed for.

There are actual disasters that deserve far more of our time and attention. For instance, there's the disaster caused by the very eco-religion that is warning us so stringently against human-caused global warming.

We were on the verge of eradicating malaria -- one or two years away -- when environmentalist true believers flexed their muscles, painting such horrible pictures of the devastation caused by DDT that governments outlawed it.

Malaria is spread by a few species of mosquito. If we could have kept on dosing them with DDT for a couple more years, malaria might have been eradicated, or so close to it that low-level use of other pesticides could have kept the carrier mosquitoes to a minimum.

Our obedience to the environmentalist religion has cost the human race a million deaths a year since then, mostly in Africa.

But what did the environmental puritans care about fifty million humans in Africa, when so many innocent African insects, and the fish and birds that prey on them, were suffering?

Everybody has a religion, whether it has a god in it or not, and everybody has a list of sins, leading up to Worst Sins. To environmental puritans, the death of a species, however small or few its numbers, is the Worst Sin -- well worth fifty million human deaths to prevent.

There are probably environmental puritans somewhere who think it's rather a shame that we wiped out a species so finely adapted to its ecological niche as the smallpox virus.

But I'm in the humanist camp on this one -- I think postponing fifty million human deaths (we never actually prevent deaths; everyone dies) would be worth the loss of a few species, though we should try to minimize such losses if we can.

The thing to remember is that species go extinct all the time. Over the course of life on Earth, most species that once lived are extinct now. The only time the death of a species is a sin is when humans cause it.

Fifty million Africans have died for the religious beliefs of a few eco-puritans who live in the comfortable, mostly malaria-free realms of Western civilization. It's a crime every bit as serious as -- and far more deliberate than -- any of the devastation caused by Europeans as they conquered and colonized the Americas.

But today's Western elites still believe in the religion that caused (and continues to cause) the malaria disaster, while most of them don't believe in the religious or cultural values that caused European misbehavior in America in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Ah, the arrogance of Knowing You're Right. Today's puritan elitists are happy to take away your job, your freedom, even your life, in order to keep Worst Sins from being committed or even advocated.

Just ask any scientist who dares to speak out against the by-now-obvious global warming hoax. They have to recant like Galileo in order to continue their careers.

The Inquisition is alive and well, and its control reaches into most universities, most news media, most courts, and, in America, one political party. (The other American political party has a different Inquisition, one devoted to rooting out RINOs, which is why they lose elections they didn't have to lose.)

There are other disasters that loom. There will be another extinction-level collision with a large rock from space -- we just can't predict when it will happen. But it does seem that at least a tiny portion of our global economy might be devoted to setting up a system of charting every solar system object that might post a danger to the survival of life on Earth.

And if we could develop means of moving such objects out of their trajectories, the whole project would pay for itself, because once we knew how to move large asteroids and comets, we could use that technology to mine them for every speck of useful metals and minerals they contain, including water.

Other disasters pose a more immediate threat. For instance, there has recently been an outbreak in California of a disease that causes paralysis of limbs and affects only children (so far). Twenty or so cases were reported in 2013, which is far from an epidemic, but all we know is that it isn't polio, though it causes similar symptoms and aims mostly at kids.

This is the potential disaster that worries me most right now. And not just because I have a nearly-one-year-old granddaughter in California. The disease has almost no symptoms -- a mild cold at worst -- until the paralysis of one or more limbs sets in. The worst-affected limb seems not to recover at all.

I see pictures of my granddaughter standing by herself for the first time, and I think: This disease could take that away from her.

Here's why this is such a potential disaster for the human species:

1. The apparent cause -- a version of enterovirus 68 -- is endemic to the human race. It's one of the causes of the common cold -- and so far we have no way of knowing how to distinguish the variant that paralyzes children.

2. There is no cure for viruses, period. When you see TV shows and movies in which the heroes race to get a blood sample or some other magic potion, and within hours doctors are able to synthesize a cure, a simple injection that brings the dying back to good health, please remember that this is fantasy, not science.

So far, the only instances of such miracle cures were penicillin and the antibacterial sulfonamides, which act, not by curing a specific disease, but by killing bacteria. That's great when you're trying to cure a disease that is caused by bacteria. (Though the overuse of bactericides has inevitably led to the rise of resistant bacteria, so our century of miracle cures seems to be ending a little early.)

But blood samples of disease victims don't allow doctors to synthesize overnight cures. Or cures of any kind. In the long run, they might lead to the creation of vaccines, which, if widely used, can prevent or ameliorate infection. They might also lead to the development of treatments -- which are not the same thing as cures.

All these things take time. Lots of time. A fast-spreading virus has plenty of time to claim many victims before science is able to come up with either treatments or preventions.

What if the rising generation is widely afflicted with E-68? The kids don't die. They can still lead productive, happy lives. But in practical terms, people with one useless limb are not likely to be as economically productive in many necessary lines of work as people with all limbs functioning. People who right now are missing a limb or suffering from partial paralysis would be the first to tell you that they wouldn't wish their condition on anyone.

Devastating plagues that kill their victims cause panic and grief and disruption at such a high level that everyone recognizes them as disasters. But the dead stay dead (sorry, Walking Dead fans) -- you don't have to keep feeding them, transporting them, educating them. You don't have to keep looking at them, grieving for what they've lost, for how their lives are limited.

Those who remember the terror of polio before the Salk vaccine know exactly what I'm talking about. I have friends my age and older who still suffer from the longterm effects of childhood polio.

That's the thing about diseases. However tenderly we might treat nature -- banning DDT, refusing to build much-needed oil pipelines -- nature has no such mercy on us.

Trillions of viruses and bacteria are working constantly to find interesting new ecological niches to occupy. They aren't malicious. They aren't trying to kill us. In fact, if they kill us so quickly that we can't infect anyone else before we die, the new virus or bacterium dies out. That's failure for them.

So they want us to live for days or weeks, so we can find as many new hosts for the disease as possible.

The amount of genuine human suffering that global warming might cause -- whether or not it is caused by humans -- is absurdly trivial compared to real disasters, and the most terrible, frightening disasters in human history are the epidemics.

Why? Because they come insidiously into our homes, striking silently the people we love -- while leaving other people inexplicably unaffected.

Even though we now understand how the old diseases were spread, that doesn't mean that new diseases can't find new vectors that might elude us for years.

Or forever.

A tsunami affects only the people who lie in its path. An earthquake has diminishing effects the farther you are from its center. Global warming is good weather.

But the entire human race is in the path of any easily-spread disease, and it can keep coming back, year after year, or after a lapse of a decade or a generation.

Fortunately, we're in a global warm phase right now. Historically, plagues spread most easily when people are already malnourished and weakened by the effects of global cool phases. As a species, we are stronger and better able to resist disease when the climate is warmer.

For those of us who live in the real world, instead of the fantasy land of the eco-puritans, humans are as entitled as any other species to look out for our own survival and to improve and maximize the quality of human lives.

It's good for us to be wise stewards of our home planet. We shouldn't use up nonrenewable resources. We shouldn't carelessly obliterate habitats or wipe out species.  We should avoid behaviors that make us vulnerable -- like crop monocultures, overcrowding, overuse of antibiotics, and unrestricted access to fragile ecosystems.

These are sensible, obvious rules that don't require you to believe that the human race is the devil or that the loss of a species is the Worst Sin.

But no matter what we do, there are disasters coming -- real ones, not fantasy ones -- and the most important things we must do are:

1. Don't become so locked into our lives that we can't make the changes necessary to adapt to new conditions.

2. Make sure we treat the people we love -- and total strangers, too -- in such a way as to make human life right now as comfortable and happy as possible.

Because we never know when death will sweep us, or them, away, putting out of reach any possibility of our bringing joy to their lives here on earth, or their bringing any into ours.


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