One security minded medical nurse/social worker in Hong Kong asked me to escort her into a less-than-safe housing area of Kowloon, in order to bring nourishing food to a malnourished mother who could not carry a child nine months in her womb. The year was 1972. After numerous miscarriages, a cruel mother-in-law wanted her son to “dump” the emaciated woman and find another nubile bride for posterity’s sake.
In the lengthy effort to bring food and build up the strength of a woman about to be divorced, the teaching nurse related an astounding story of Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis (1818-1865) to me. Semmelweis practiced medicine in Vienna where too many mothers were dying following child birth. (Puerperal fever) He observed doctors were not washing their hands after treating sick patients, but proceeded directly to the delivery room. Other “intelligent” doctors were angry over Semmelweis’ directive to wash their hands. Ultimately, they had the upstart doctor sent to an institution for the mentally unstable. He died in that hospital. Forty years were required before doctors accepted the recommendation of Semmelweis. In our era, there is a law posted on restroom doors of every restaurant: “EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK.”
That same year I attended the funeral of another HK nurse who died in her 40’s. The doctor knew she never smoked a cigarette in her life, but her father and brother were smokers during her childhood in Manila. The doctor concluded “second-hand smoke” was sufficient to bring on a fatal lung condition. Forty years later, we know the dangers of smoke from others. It is a fact that 400,000 die yearly in the US from smoking, thousands more from second-hand smoke. Anti-smoking success in the US leads tobacco firms to other nations where too many are dying in ignorance of dangers.
“In 1931 doctors promoted cigarettes. In 1965, the year after Surgeon General Luther Terry’s landmark report linked smoking to lung cancer and other diseases, 42 percent of US adults puffed daily. By 2012, just 18 percent were lighting up. Now for the bad news. Smoking can cause diabetes, liver and colorectal cancer, pregnancy problems and many other ills, says Jonathon Samet, editor of this year’s report. He reports smoking has killed 20 million in 50 years. Smoking is bad for fiscal health, costing $300 billion a year in medical bills and lost productivity. It is time to make combusted cigarettes obsolete.” (NATIONAL GEOGRAHIC, August 2014)
Over 100 years ago humans were warned that smoking emissions from fossil fuels would be harmful to Earth, but not specifically to the “lungs” of our planet. Ocean acidification, flowing from carbon dioxide, is called climate change’s “evil twin.” Somewhat like our ban on smoking cigarettes, lead in gasoline, CFC’s as an aerosol, we are slow in responding to the harmful situations.
However, Earth has never been so environmentally challenged in billions of years as in the present moment. In a calendar measurement of the planet’s multi-billion year cosmic history, our appearance would be similar to arriving in the last thirty seconds before midnight on December 31st.
What are decades of fossil fuels in comparison to billions of years from solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy? The closing circle of emissions from fossil fuels now leads humankind to training students in renewable energy sources. Our slow learning curve must be shortened as future generations wait for all to become more carbon neutral. Carbon neutrality is a lesson so elementary as washing our hands, banning cigarettes, getting lead out of our paint and gasoline. Corporate interests preserve fossil fuel chokeholds on all of us.
Children are hoping for our awareness and a better future. Adults too.