What Doesn’t Kill Us

There’s a word for everything:

Hormesis is a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect. In the fields of biology and medicine hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress… A short working definition of hormesis is a process in which exposure to a low dose of a chemical agent or environmental factor that is damaging at higher doses induces an adaptive beneficial effect on the cell or organism.

That’s the fancy way of saying that pesticides in your food and smog in the air and second-hand cigarette smoke in the restaurant are actually good for you. A low dose of bad stuff builds up tolerance and resistance to that bad stuff. You’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine. You’ll be invincible. You can drink battery acid while smoking a cigar.

Don’t try that. That would be taking a minor observable truth of something that happens now and then, on a small scale, and making a universal mess of things. But that does happen now and then. It’s a Trump thing of course. The Los Angeles Times’ Susanne Rust reports this from the Trump administration:

In early 2018, a deputy assistant administrator in the EPA, Clint Woods, reached out to a Massachusetts toxicologist best known for pushing a public health standard suggesting that low levels of toxic chemicals and radiation are good for people…

Less than two weeks later, Ed Calabrese’s suggestions on how the EPA should assess toxic chemicals and radiation were introduced, nearly word for word, in the U.S. government’s official journal, the Federal Register.

“This is a major big time victory,” Calabrese wrote in an email to Steve Milloy, a former coal and tobacco lobbyist who runs a website junkscience.com that seeks to discredit mainstream climate science. “Yes. It is YUGE!” wrote Milloy, in response.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

We could stop right there if we wanted. Steve Milloy is one of the most prominent purveyors of crap science in the world. He’s a climate change denier with close ties to the tobacco industry and the author of (among others) Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them. If Calabrese and Milloy are buddies, that’s probably all you need to know.

And then there’s the matter of Calabrese’s funding, noted in the Los Angeles Times article:

By the 1990s, Calabrese had solidly established himself as a trusted scientist with the tobacco industry. He found they were interested in research that questioned the methods that regulatory agencies use to assess risk… but it was when he began his work on hormesis that Calabrese got attention from a broader range of industries. With seed money from R.J. Reynolds, Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble and others, as well as the EPA, Calabrese established a hormesis working group at the University of Massachusetts, which he called the Biological Effects of Low Level Exposures, or BELLE…

Between 1990 and 2013, Calabrese received more than $8 million from companies and institutions, including R.J. Reynolds, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, General Electric, the Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force, to conduct research on hormesis.


There you have it. As usual, the tobacco industry is the root of all scientific evil, and their approach long ago caught on with every other polluting industry out there. “Manufacturing doubt” is their goal, and abuse of research into processes like hormesis is their holy grail. It’s not that hormesis is impossible. There may well be a few isolated examples where it has application – and as far as polluting industries are concerned, one example is plenty. They can then fund research claiming to find it all over the place.

If you want to read the whole grim story check out Rebecca Leber’s piece from last October about how Calabrese’s ideas became embedded in the EPA’s rulemaking process after Trump took office.

It’s the Trump era in a nutshell.

And everyone gets it. What’s bad for you is really good for you. And science doesn’t answer everything – and scientists are just guessing anyway – and facts aren’t really facts. Coal is one of the cleanest energy sources known to man – that was in the 2016 Republican platform document and President Trump keeps saying that. And he once said that global warming, now called climate change, is a hoax invented by the Chinese to ruin capitalism and thus ruin the United States. Hillary Clinton brought that up in one of the presidential debates and Trump said that he never ever said such a thing. Within an hour his tweet saying just that was on every television screen on every news show – so now he says it’s all a hoax and doesn’t mention the Chinese. And how bad can global warming be? We still have winter and everyone likes warm weather. Things will be fine. And there’s hormesis. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Perhaps the collapse of the world’s ecosystem and droughts and famines and absolutely unbreathable air and no drinking water will make us all stronger – unless it kills us.

Some people don’t believe that what doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger. Virile and manly Republicans say such things. Or maybe that’s Republicans who are desperate to seem virile and manly, to seem even half as virile and manly as, say, Vladimir Putin.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is not one of those:

The Green New Deal – summarized in a joint resolution introduced by charismatic first-year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) – has unleashed gale-force winds in Washington. President Trump immediately incorporated it into his new “socialism” riffs about Democrats, telling a crowd in El Paso, “I don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights,” or “you’re not allowed to own cows anymore.”

Some Democrats were also aflutter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) dismissed it as “the green dream or whatever they call it. Nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” Pelosi and key House committee chairs refused to back the notion of a special committee tasked with producing a comprehensive 10-year agenda. Across Capitol Hill, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he would force a vote on the resolution in the Senate, certain that anyone supporting it would be in a boatload of trouble. In response, reports are that some Senate Democrats are considering just voting “present” to duck the question.

Katrina vanden Heuvel thinks that’s nonsense:

Let’s have a vote – preferably in both houses – that reveals the Republicans frozen in denial about climate change and unwilling to do anything serious to address it. Let’s see who on the Democratic side is prepared to stand up and who is not.

And the time is right now:

Just as catastrophic climate events have savaged the United States, from California infernos to ever more destructive East Coast hurricanes, the issue of climate change is finally disrupting our politics. While not one question was asked about climate change in the 2016 general-election debates, in 2020, climate change and the Green New Deal (GND) will be at the center of the conversation. Leading Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar have all endorsed the Green New Deal, and more will join. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee promises to center his campaign on climate change. And since money still talks in American politics, it doesn’t hurt that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, has pledged to spend $500 million against Trump in the next election, while calling on the Democratic candidates to lay out their position on this issue.

Meanwhile, ecological disasters continue to wreak a rising toll. Last summer’s heat wave across the Northern Hemisphere killed hundreds from Japan to Canada. Brutal wildfires in California savaged over 1 million acres, forcing thousands to flee. In 2017 alone, the United States suffered a record 16 weather disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damages, costing a combined total of about $306 billion. As Adm. Philip S. Davidson, head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, testified, the intelligence community’s conclusion that climate change is a global threat is clearly justified by the “number of ecological disaster events that are happening.”

Something is up:

In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – by its very nature a cautious body of experts – warned that the house was on fire. The IPCC said that if humanity stays on its current course – with carbon emissions still rising – we will see tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing extreme heat or spreading deserts, rising tides and flooding that will destabilize countries across the globe. The experts give the world 12 years to change things. As Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, summarized, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

And that’s where the Green New Deal comes in:

The GND resolution responds to this global call to action. It would establish a special committee of Congress tasked with detailing a 10-year plan to meet the threat posed by global warming. It requires a plan commensurate with the scope of the challenge – one that will inevitably transform our energy system, transport systems, agriculture and buildings.

So everything must change:

GND supporters argue, correctly, that this is both a monumental challenge and a potential opportunity. Addressing climate change before it is too late will require a mobilization on the scope of World War II. That provides the opportunity to transform our economy and rebuild a broad middle class, this time including those who were largely locked out the last time.

But then there’s hormesis, the concept that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the idea there’s nothing wrong, really, and then there’s real life:

More and more Americans are experiencing the costs and perils of devastating climate events. Most, despite Trump’s boasts about the economy, are struggling to stay afloat, still watching plants close, health-care and college costs soar, and debts increase. To win, Democrats will have to offer more than simply an anti-Trump; they have to be agents of real change.

So let McConnell stage his vote. Let Trump issue his best adolescent gibes. Catastrophic climate events will continue to shatter complacency.

Eugene Robinson is fine with that:

Who’s afraid of the Green New Deal? I’m not. It’s ambitious, aspirational, improbable, impractical – almost as audacious as putting a man on the moon. We used to be able to think big. Let’s do it again.

It may not be the same thing as putting a man on the moon but this can be done:

Since the 14-page resolution was introduced in Congress this month by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), critics have been falling over themselves to denounce the Green New Deal’s policies as prohibitively expensive, totally unworkable or somehow Venezuelan. If those opponents would stop shouting long enough to actually read the document, they’d see that it’s not a compendium of concrete policies at all, but rather a set of goals.

And they are the right goals. The Green New Deal seeks to outline a national project for our time – not just a response to a grave environmental threat, but a framework for enhanced growth, opportunity and fairness.

The laudable aim is to play offense, not defense, in the fight to limit climate change. We are going to have to wage that battle one way or another. Why not do it on our terms, before Miami slips underwater and the yet-unburned parts of California go up in flames?

So just do it:

Can we really shift entirely to clean energy sources within 10 years, as the resolution pledges? Well, certainly not if we don’t try. In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the moon and back by the end of the decade, NASA scientists had only a vague idea how to do such a thing. They figured it out, and succeeded in 1969.

Just do it:

It’s too expensive, naysayers complain. They point to a clause in the resolution that calls for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States” to make them more energy-efficient. That sounds absurd —-until you remember the massive blackout drills that took place across the country during World War II. People participated. It was their patriotic duty.

Just do it:

Acting alone would be pointless, skeptics say. Indeed, China is now by far the world’s biggest carbon emitter, with the United States second and India a fast-rising third. What would be the point of going to great effort to reduce U.S. emissions while others just burn more coal?

Think about it, though. We are, after all, the second-biggest emitter, which means that any substantial reduction would indeed have measurable impact. Also, officials in China and India, unlike those in the Trump administration, understand and accept the conclusions of climate scientists. China may be adding coal-fired power plants, but it is also making massive investments in clean energy. Do you really want Beijing to lead the way into the future? Shouldn’t it be Washington?

That’s a rationale for the Green New Deal that the Make America Great Again crowd should embrace. If you believe in American exceptionalism, you believe that the United States has a duty to lead at moments of crisis. This is such a moment.

Kevin Drum says it’s not that easy:

We believe that climate change is an existential crisis for the planet, and the evidence supports that. But if it’s really that big a crisis, why don’t we act like it?

Let me put this in concrete terms. If you truly believe that climate change will broil the planet in the next 50 years or so, the very least you should do is immediately get rid of your car and adopt a vegan diet.

How many of you have done that? How many of you have even considered it? Virtually none of you and that’s just a start. If you’re really serious, you should also toss out your air conditioning; only heat your house if temps are down in the 40s; never travel anywhere by plane; buy local food; and install rooftop solar. I’m going to let you keep your too-big house, but only because I’m a nice guy.

Drum sees a hopeless situation:

With current technology, this is what it would take from all of us to make a serious dent in climate change. And you’re not doing it. Neither am I. Nor, if we’re being honest, would we vote for anyone who we thought might force us to live like this. And that’s despite the fact that people like us are the most likely to support serious carbon reduction. As we all know, there are plenty of others who won’t even go so far as to support modestly higher CAFE standards or decommissioning of coal plants.

This should be a lesson to all of us: if we ourselves, who believe passionately that climate change is an existential threat, aren’t willing to make serious sacrifices to stop it, we should step back and ask why. Is it solely because it would be unfair for some of us to sacrifice like this when others aren’t? That’s certainly a handy excuse. Would we then be willing to support laws that forced everyone to live like this?

I very much doubt it.

Now extrapolate:

Think about this a bit and you’ll have a better understanding of why other people are unwilling to make even modest sacrifices to fight climate change.

We’re screwed. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? Why are we testing that proposition?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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