an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

climate change – we know what we should be doing

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Professor Mark Howden of the ANU and the IPCC – straight science and economic sense

Here in Australia we have a national government that hates to mention human-induced climate change publicly, whatever their personal views are, and clearly they’re varied. I’ve long suspected that there’s a top-down policy (which long predates our current PM) of not mentioning anthropogenic global warming, lest it outrage a large part of the conservative base, while doing a few things behind the scenes to support renewables and reduce emissions. It’s a sort of half-hearted, disorganised approach to what is clearly a major problem locally and globally. And meanwhile some less disciplined or less chained members or former members of this government, such as former PM Tony Abbott and current MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, are ignoring the party line (and science), and so revealing just how half-arsed the government’s way of dealing with the problem really is. The national opposition doesn’t seem much better on this issue, and it might well be a matter of following the money…

So I was impressed with a recent ABC interview with Australian climate scientist and leading member of the IPCC, Professor Mark Howden, also director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, who spoke a world of good sense in about ten minutes. 

The interview was preceded by the statement that the government is holding to its emission reduction targets – considered to be rather minimal by climate change scientists – while possibly ‘tweaking’ broader climate change policy. This is another example of ‘don’t scare the base’, IMHO. It was also reported that the government felt it might reach its Paris agreement without using ‘carry-over credits’ from the previous Kyoto agreement.  

The issue here is that our government, in its wisdom, felt that it should get credit for ‘more than meeting’ its Kyoto targets. As Howden pointed out, those Kyoto targets were easy to meet because we’d have met them even while increasing our emissions (which we in fact did). Spoken without any sense of irony by the unflappable professor. 

There’s no provision in the Paris agreement for such ‘carry-over credits’ – however the government has previously relied on them as an entitlement, and in fact pushed for them in a recent meeting in Madrid. Now, it’s changing its tune, slightly. The hullabaloo over the bushfire tragedies has been an influence, as well as a growing sense that reaching the Paris targets without these credits is do-able. Interestingly, Howden suggests that the credits are important for us meeting our Paris commitments up to 2030, as they make up more than half the required emissions reductions. So, if they’re included, we’ll need a 16% reduction from here, rather than a 26 – 28% reduction. But is this cheating? Is it in the spirit of the Paris agreement? Surely not, apart from legal considerations. It certainly affects any idea that Australia might play a leadership role in emissions reductions. 

So now the government is indicating that it might scrap the reliance on credits and find real reductions – which is, in fact, a fairly momentous decision for this conservative administration, because the core emissions from energy, transport, waste and other activities are all rising and would need to be turned around (I’m paraphrasing Howden here). So far no policies have been announced, or are clearly in the offing, to effect this turnaround. There’s an Emissions Reductions Fund,  established in 2014-5 to support businesses, farmers, landowners in reducing emissions through a carbon credit scheme (this is news to me) but according to Howden it’s in need of more public funding, and the ‘carbon sinks’ – that’s to say the forests that have been burning horrifically in past weeks  – which the government has been partly relying upon, are proving to be less stable than hoped. So there are limitations to the government’s current policies. Howden argues for a range of additional policies, but as he says, they’ve rejected (presumably permanently) so many options in the past, most notably carbon pricing, that the cupboard looks pretty bare for the future. There’s of course a speedier move towards renewables in electricity generation – which represents about 30% of emissions, the other 70% being with industry, agriculture, transport and mining (see my previous piece on fracking, for example, a practice that looks to be on the increase in Australia). Howden puts forward the case that it’s in this 70% area that policies can be most helpful, both in emissions reduction and jobs growth. For example, in transport, Australia is well behind other nations in the uptake of EVs, which our government has done nothing to support, unlike most advanced economies. Having EVs working off a renewables grid would reduce transport emissions massively. Other efficiencies which could be encouraged by government policy would be reducing livestock methane emissions through feed and husbandry reforms, such as maintaining shade and other stress-reducing conditions. This can increase productivity and reduce per-unit environmental footprint – or hoofprint. 

As to the old carbon pricing argument – Howden points out that during the brief period that carbon pricing was implemented in Australia, core emissions dropped significantly, and the economy continued to grow. It was clearly successful, and its rescinding in around 2015 has proved disastrous. Howden feels that it’s hard to foresee Australia meeting its 2030 Paris targets without some sort of price on carbon – given that there won’t be any deal on carry-over credits. There’s also an expectation that targets will be ramped up, post-2030. 

So, the message is that we need to sensibly revisit carbon pricing as soon as possible, and we need to look positively at abatement policies as encouraging growth and innovation – the cost of doing nothing being much greater than the costs involved in emissions reduction. And there are plenty of innovations out there – you can easily look them up on youtube, starting with the Fully Charged show out of Britain. The complacency of the current Oz government in view of the challenges before us is itself energy-draining – like watching a fat-arsed couch potato yawning his way towards an early death. 

References

https://iview.abc.net.au/show/abc-news-mornings

https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/government/emissions-reduction-fund/about

https://ussromantics.com/2020/01/02/fracking-hell/

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2020 at 10:37 am

A DNA dialogue 1: the human genome

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what genomics tells us

Canto: I’m often confused when I try to get my head around all the stuff about genes and DNA, and genomes and alleles and chromosomes, and XX and XY, and mitosis and meiosis, and dominant and recessive and so on. I’d like to get clear, if only I could.

Jacinta: That’s a big ask, and of course we’re both in the same boat. So let’s use the magical powers of the internet to find answers. For example, here’s something that confuses me. The Human Genome project, which ended around the year 2000, involved a mapping of the whole human genome, and that includes coding and non-coding genes, and I think it was found to contain 26,000 or so – what? Letters? Genes? Coding genes? Anyway there’s a number of questions there, but they’re not the questions that confuse me. I don’t get that we now, apparently, have worked out the genetic code for all humans, but each of us has different DNA. How, exactly, does our own individual DNA relate to the genome that determines the whole species? Presumably it’s some kind of subset?

Canto: Hmmm. This article from the Smithsonian tells us that the genetic difference between human individuals is very tiny, at around 0.1%. We humans differ from bonobos and chimps, two lineages of apes that separated much more recently, by about 1.2%….

Jacinta: Yes, yes, but how, with this tiny difference between us, are we able to use DNA forensically to identify individuals from a DNA sample?

Canto: Well, perhaps this Smithsonian article provides a clue. It says that the 1.2% difference between us and chimps reflects a particular way of counting. I won’t go into the details here but apparently another way of counting shows a 4-5% difference.

Jacinta: We probably do need to go into the details in the end, but clearly this tiny .1% difference between humans is enough for us to determine the DNA as coming from one individual rather than 7 to 8 billion others. Strangely enough, I can well believe that, given that we can detect gravitational waves and such – obviously using very different technology.

Canto: Yeah the magic of science. So the Human Genome Project was officially completed in April 2003. And here’s an interesting quote from Wikipedia:

The “genome” of any given individual is unique; mapping the “human genome” involved sequencing a small number of individuals and then assembling these together to get a complete sequence for each chromosome. Therefore, the finished human genome is a mosaic, not representing any one individual.

Of course it would have to be a mosaic, but how can it represent the whole human genome when it’s only drawn from a small number? And who were these individuals, how many, and where from?

Jacinta: The Wikipedia article does give more info on this. It tells us that the project isn’t really finished, as we’ve developed techniques and processes for faster and deeper analyses. As to your questions, when the ‘finished’ sequencing was announced, the mosaic was drawn from a small number of anonymous donors, all of European origin.

Canto: But we all originated from Africa anyway, so…

Jacinta: So maybe recent ‘origin’ isn’t so important. Anyway, that first sequencing is now known as the ‘reference genome’, but after that they did sequence the genomes of ‘multiple distinct ethnic groups’, so they’ve been busy. But here are some key findings, to finish off this first post. They found some 22,300 protein-coding genes, as well as a lot of what they used to call junk DNA – now known as non-coding DNA. That number is within the mammalian range for DNA, which no doubt surprised many. Another blow for human specialness? And they also found that there were many more segmental duplications than expected. That’s to say, sections of DNA that are almost identically repeated.We’ll have to explore the significance of this as we go along.

Canto: Yes, that’s enough for starters. Apparently our genome has over 3 billion nucleobase pairs, about which more later no doubt.

References

http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genome_Project

Written by stewart henderson

January 13, 2020 at 11:48 pm

Operation Pressure Pump, the struggle with anti-Americanism, and the future of humanism (!?)

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capital tragedy – Pyongyang

Having succumbed to the strange lure of Korean period dramas, and the not-so-strange allure of the incomparable Ha ji Won, in recent times, I’ve been reading a real history of Korea, Michael Seth’s fast-moving, highly readable book in the Brief History series. 

Seth’s book moves perhaps a bit too quickly through the vast time-span of Korean civilisation before the twentieth century, but no matter, I was keen to find out more about the Korean War, its causes and consequences, about which I knew practically nothing.

In brief, the Korean War was an outcome of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, and its surrender and withdrawal in 1945. The vacuum thus left was occupied by the Americans in the south, and the Russians in the north, a division demarcated arbitrarily by the 38th parallel. This quasi-official division, which seemed to go on indefinitely and which the Koreans were never consulted about, came as a massive affront to a people who had effectively governed their own undivided region for centuries.

Nevertheless, communism was in the air, and held a certain appeal for some of the Korean peasantry and some intellectuals, fed by Russian and Chinese propaganda. In the poorer north, Russian and local communist leaders were able to introduce reforms which had a direct and immediate benefit for the landless peasantry, while the Americans, apparently clueless about Korean politics and history, tried to maintain order by continuing some of the hated repressive measures of the Japanese.

People on both sides of the 38th parallel wanted and expected reunification of the country in the near future, which makes what eventually happened one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The north, under the discipline of Russian Stalinist policies of ‘x-year plans’ and ultra-nationalist workaholism, took the initiative, building up a powerful military force with which to invade the south and enforce reunification, and a Stalinist paradise. By this time Kim Il Sung had imposed himself as the Great Leader of the north, dealing ruthlessly with all rivals.

The north’s attack took the south completely by surprise, and was almost a complete success. They captured all the southern territory except for a small area around Busan, Korea’s second city in the south-east corner. By this time General MacArthur had been appointed to head the southern defence, and with American arms and reinforcements arriving quickly, the invaders were pushed back.

The northern invasion was extremely unpopular in the south, and few of the peasantry, who were generally better off than their northern counterparts, were interested in what Kim’s Stalinists had to offer. So – and again I’m simplifying massively – things eventually went back to a stalemate centred upon the once meaningless, and now very meaningful, 38th parallel. Warfare dragged on for another couple of years, mostly around that parallel.

And that’s how I come to the title of this piece. Operation Pressure Pump, which commenced in July 1952, came about as a result of American frustration with the stalemate. Here’s how Seth describes it:

Thousands of bombing raids destroyed every possible military and industrial target, the dams and dikes that irrigated the rice fields. Pyongyang and other northern cities began to look like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bomb, with only a few buildings standing. More bombs were dropped by the Americans on this little country of hardly more than 8 million than the allies had dropped on either Germany or the Japanese Empire in WWII. As a result, the North Koreans were forced to move underground. The entire country became a bunker state, with industries, offices and even living quarters moved to hundreds of miles of tunnels. Nonetheless, civilian casualties in these bombing raids were appallingly high.

A brief history of Korea: isolation, war, despotism and revival – the fascinating story of a resilient but divided people, p 126

Now, this was new knowledge to me, and I haven’t heard too many Americans talking about it, in the various media outlets I’ve been listening to lately, as a black mark against the country’s name – and some Americans are self-critical in this way. Okay, it was sixty-odd years ago, and since then there’s been Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and a few other ‘minor’ interventions, so, who’s remembering?

So, I’ve been quite critical of the USA on this blog, and I do actually worry from time to time that I’m being unfairly anti-American. I try to relieve this concern by noting that the USA simply follows the pattern of every other militarily and economically powerful country in history. It bullies its neighbours and exploits all other regions, including its allies, to enhance its power. It also falls victim to the same fallacy that every previous powerful nation falls victim to – that its economic power is evidence of moral superiority. Their myth of American exceptionalism is arguably no worse than that of British benevolent imperialism or the civilising influence of the Roman/Egyptian/Babylonian empire. In fact, all nations are 100% self-interested in their own way. A middling country like Australia bullies smaller countries, such as East Timor over oil in the Timor Sea, while kowtowing to more powerful countries like China and the USA, in which case its self-interest lies in how to kowtow to one country without offending the other.

But let me return to Operation Pressure Pump. The greatest casualties of war are ordinary people. It’s worth dwelling on this as ordinary people currently face the consequences of stupid decisions over Iran. ‘Ordinary people’ might seem a condescending term, but it’s always worth remembering that the vast majority of people – in Iran, North Korea, Australia, the USA or elsewhere – aren’t intellectuals or politicians or national decision-makers or religious leaders or general movers and shakers – they’re people whose lives revolve around friends and family and trying to make a reasonable living. Warfare, and the damage and displacement it causes, isn’t something they can ever seriously factor into their plans. It just happens to them, a bit like cancer.

So the US bombing campaign was something that happened to the North Korean people in the early fifties. Another thing that happened to them was ‘communism’ or the despotic nationalist madness of Kim Il Sung. So they were doubly unlucky. As a humanist, I like to think my politics are simple. I consider bullies to be the worst form of human life, and I expect governments to be most concerned about protecting the bullied against the bullies, the exploited against the exploiters. I actually expect government to be an elite institution, like the media, the judiciary, and the science and technology sector. I also expect governments to put humanism above nationalism, but that’s a big ask. The UN hasn’t so far proved to be an enormous success, as members have generally put national interests above broader global interests, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and some parts of it, such the WHO and the UNHCR, have proved their value. I don’t think there’s any other option but to struggle to give more teeth to the UN, the International Criminal Court and other international oversight agencies. We should never allow one nation to accord to itself the role of global police officer. Of course these international bureaucracies are cumbersome when flashpoints occur – the aim is always to prevent these things from happening. The current Iran situation was entirely preventible, and was entirely due to the USA’s appalling Presidential system, which has allowed an irresponsible, attention-seeking buffoon to hold a position with way too much power and way too little accountability. There’s no doubt that Soleimani was an unpleasant character, but reports were that his activities were much reduced due to the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, a famously well-crafted deal by most accounts, which was destroyed by the buffoon.

So, this piece of unilateral bad acting by the USA takes us back to the terror bombing of North Korea in the early fifties. I’m certainly not saying that this cruelty made North Korea what it is today, but it didn’t help. We just have to learn to be more collaborative, more willing to negotiate and to understand, to hear, the other side, and stop being such belligerent male arseholes. We have a long way to go.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2020 at 7:24 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 4: the male-female thing

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Gametes are gametes because of epigenetic modifications in their pro-nuclei, but they have to lose these modifications, or transform them, when they come together to form zygotes. The male pro-nucleus DNA methylation is stripped away immediately after sperm penetrates egg. The egg pronucleus undergoes the same process, but more gradually. It’s like a wiping away of epigenetic memory, creating totipotency, which becomes a more limited pluripotency as the blastocyst, with its inner cell mass (ICM), forms. 

The ICM cells begin differentiating through the regulation of some key genes. For example, a gene codes for a protein that switches on a set of genes, which code for proteins in a cascading effect. But it’s not quite a matter of switching genes on or off, it’s rather more complex. The process is called gene reprogramming, and it’s of course done effortlessly during every reproductive cycle. Artificial reprogramming of the kind carried out by Yamanaka and others, an essential part of cloning, hasn’t come close to this natural process that goes on in mammals and other species every day.

Clearly, though the epigenetic reprogramming for the female pronucleus is different from that carried out more swiftly in the male. As Carey puts it, ‘the pattern of epigenetic modifications in sperm is one that allows the male pronucleus to be reprogrammed relatively easily.’ Human researchers haven’t been particularly successful in reprogramming an adult nucleus by various methods, such as transferring it to a fertilised egg or treating it with the four genes isolated by Yamanaka. The natural process of gene reprogramming eliminates most of the epigenetic effects accumulated in the parent genes, but as the reprogramming is a different process in the male and female pro-nucleus, this shows that they aren’t functionally equivalent. There is a ‘parent-of-origin effect’. Experiments done on mice to explore this effect found that DNA methylation, an important form of chromatin modification (and the first one discovered), was passed on to offspring by the female parent. That’s to say, DNA from the female was more heavily methylated than that from the male. Carey describes the DNA as ‘bar-coded’ as coming from the male or the female. The common term for this is imprinting, and it’s entirely epigenetic.

Imprinting has been cast by Carey, and no doubt others, as an aspect of the ‘battle of the sexes’. This battle may well be imprinted in the pronuclei of the fertilised egg. Here’s how Carey puts the two opposing positions:

Male: This pregnant female is carrying my genes in the form of this foetus. I may never mate with her again. I want my foetus to get as big as possible so that it has the greatest chance of passing on my genes.

Female: I want this foetus to pass on my genes. But I don’t want it to be at the cost of draining me so much that I never reproduce again. I want more than this one chance to pass on my genes.

So there’s a kind of balance that has developed in we eutherian mammals, in a battle to ensure that neither sex gains the upper hand. Further experiments on mice in recent times have explored how this battle is played out epigenetically. I’ll look at them in the next post in this series.

Reference

The Epigenetics Revolution, by Nessa Carey, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

January 9, 2020 at 10:50 am

the SUV abomination, or when will we reach peak SUV?

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the anti-SUV – a Tesla Model X, landing in a field somewhere

I was amused by a recent rant from Robert Llewellyn of the highly-recommended Fully Charged vodcasts, regarding the rise and rise of petrol and diesel-fuelled SUV sales in this period of carbon emission concern and climate change. So I have to share an anecdote.

As a young perennially poor person in the seventies I hitch-hiked quite a lot. Hitch-hiking is barely a thing nowadays, and I suspect the hitch-hiking experience I’m about to describe, sometime in the eighties, was my last. It often comes back to annoy me. 

I was picked up by an overweight middle-aged woman with a blaze of dyed blond hair and a dire Aussie accent, in an SUV. Obviously, it was a kind gesture. 

This was my first experience of being in an SUV, and I’ve had very few since. It felt strange to be looking down at other cars on the road. I wondered if this created psychological effects. The woman, I think, tried to elicit conversation but I’m very shy with strangers and pretty hopeless at small talk. So she made her own, which soon developed into a rant against ‘small cars’, which she seemed to regard as death traps and a form of road litter. Certainly there was a strange, disproportionate rage that got to me, as I nodded with an air of non-committal sagacity.

At that point in my life I’d never driven a car – I didn’t get my licence until my late thirties – but I knew the kind of car I wanted to drive, and it was the precise opposite of an SUV, a ridiculous vehicle that was just starting to pollute city streets at the time of this awkward incident. Of course the environment was already a major public issue in the eighties, so I naively thought this woman was on the wrong side of history. The SUV would surely go the way of the dinosaur, in somewhat less than a couple of hundred million years.

But SUV sales are soaring worldwide, in spite of a greater recognition of climate change and anthropogenic global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions. I suppose there’s some excuse for them in Australia, this land of sweeping plains (and sleeping brains), but given our apparent indifference to the EV revolution and the phobia re climate change issues of our federal government, we’re just going to have to put up with these tanks continuing to proliferate in our suburbs. And it’s going on everywhere – there’s currently a huge spike in SUV sales worldwide. I mean, WTF?

So, instead of a pox on SUVs, how about a tax on them? It worked with cigarettes here….

Of course I’m joking. Western governments are more likely to subsidise the manufacture of SUVs than to tax them. This US business website presents in graphic detail the surge in SUV sales:

48% of car sales in the United States last year [2018]’were SUVs, which was the highest percentage worldwide, but other countries are catching up. Large cars can be seen as a status symbol, and sales are rising in countries like China and India where the middle class is growing.

The website cites a study which found that the number of SUVs on the road has increased about six-fold since 2010, and SUVs alone were the second largest contributor to the global increase in carbon emissions during that period. So, I wonder, when will we reach peak SUV?

Written by stewart henderson

January 7, 2020 at 9:05 pm

epigenetics and imprinting 3: at the beginning

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stuff that can be done with iPS cells

A zygote is the union of two gametes (haploid cells), the sperm and the egg. It’s the first diploid cell, from which all the other diploid cells – scores of trillions of them – are formed via mitosis.

What’s interesting about this from an epigenetic perspective is that gametes are specialised cells, but zygotes are essentially totipotent – the least specialised cells imaginable – and all this has to do with epigenetics.

I’m not entirely clear about what happens to turn specialist gametes into totipotent zygotes, and that’s what I’m trying to find out. I’m not sure yet whether zygotes immediately start differentiating as they divide and multiply or whether the first divisions – in what is called the zygote phase, which eventually forms the blastocyst – form an identical set of zygotes. 

The two-week period of these first divisions is called the germinal phase. During this phase zygotes divide mitotically while at the same time moving, I’m not sure how, from the fallopian tube to the uterus. Apparently, after the first few divisions, differentiation starts to occur. The cells also divide into two layers, the inner embryo and the outer placenta. The growing group of cells is called a blastocyst. The outer layer burrows into the lining of the uterus and continues to create a web of membranes and blood vessels, a fully developed placenta.

But, as Nessa Carey would say, this is a description not an explanation. How does this initial cell differentiation – into the outer layer (trophectoderm), which becomes the placenta and other extra-embryonic tissues, and the inner cell mass (ICM) – come about? Understanding these mechanisms, and the difference between totipotent cells (zygotes) and pluripotent cells (embryonic stem cells) is clearly essential for comprehending, and so creating, particular forms of life. This PMC article, which examines how the trophectoderm is formed in mice, demonstrates the complexity of all this, and raises questions about when the ‘information’ that gives rise to differentiation becomes established in these initial cells. Note for example this passage from the article, which dates to 2003:

It is now generally accepted that trophectoderm is formed from the outer cell layer of the morula, while the inner cells give rise to the ICM, which subsequently forms the epiblast and primitive endoderm lineages. What remains controversial, however, is whether there is pre-existing information accounting for these cell fate decisions earlier than the 8-cell stage of development, perhaps even as early as the oocyte itself. 

The morula is the early-stage embryo, consisting of 16 totipotent cells. The epiblast is a slightly later differentiation within the ICM. An oocyte is a cytoplasm-rich, immature egg cell.

Molecular biologists have been trying to understand cell differentiation by working backwards, trying to turn specialised cells into pluripotent stem cells, mostly through manipulating their nuclei. You can imagine the benefits, considering the furore created a while back about the use of embryonic stem (ES) cells in medical treatments. To be able to somehow transform a liver or skin cell into this pluripotential multi-dimensional tool would surely be a tremendous breakthrough. Most in the field, however, considered such a transformation to be little more than a pipe-dream.

Carey describes how this breakthrough occurred. Based on previous research, Shinya Yamanaka and his junior associate Kazutoshi Takahashi started with a list of 24 genes already found to be ‘pluripotency genes’, essential to ES cells. If these genes are switched off experimentally, ES cells begin to differentiate. The 24 genes were tested in mouse embryonic fibroblasts, and, to massively over-simplify, they eventually found that only 4 genes, acting together, could transform the fibroblasts into ES-type cells. Further research confirmed this finding, and the method was later found to work with non-embryonic cells. The new cells thus created were given the name ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, or iPS cells, and the breakthrough has inspired a lot of research since then.

So what exactly does this have to do with epigenetics? The story continues.

Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2020 at 5:28 pm

thoughts on smoking, cancer and government

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a simple and provenly effective solution

Recently I was talking about unhealthy habits to my students – I teach academic English to NESB students – and smoking came up. A student from Saudi Arabia piped up: ‘smoking isn’t unhealthy’.
Now, considering that this same student, a married man aged around thirty, had previously told me that, in ancient times, humans lived to be over 900 years old – ‘it says so in the Bible’ – I wasn’t entirely surprised, and didn’t waste too much time in arguing the point. Actually, I think now he probably mentioned the Bible to show or suggest that Moslems and Judeo-Christians might agree on some things!

Of course, this student was a smoker. Many of my male students are. These students are predominantly Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, that’s to say from countries whose governments have acted less forcefully in dealing with smoking than has the Australian government. I myself smoked. albeit lightly, until the age of 24 (a long time ago). Now, having been diagnosed with bronchiectasis, I’m extremely intolerant of cigarette smoke, not to say smokers.

I’m currently ploughing though Siddhartha Mukherjee’s classic Emperor of All Maladies, and have just finished the section on smoking and cancer, and the battle with tobacco companies in libertarianism’s heartland, the USA. 

Cigarette smoke contains a number of carcinogens – but what is a carcinogen? It’s basically a product or agent that has a reasonable likelihood of causing cancer, which doesn’t of course mean that it will cause cancer in every instance. You can play Russian roulette with the 60 or more well-established carcinogens in cigarette smoke, and risk-taking young men in particular will continue to do so, but it’s a massive risk, and the dangers increase with age and length and frequency of use. Lung cancer is the most regularly cited outcome, but as the US surgeon-general’s 2010 report shows in vast detail, cancers of the larynx, oral cavity, pharynx, oesophagus, pancreas, bladder, kidney, cervix, stomach and liver can all be induced by this inhaled chemical cocktail. And cancer isn’t the only issue. There is the problem of nicotine addiction, as well as cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, and fertility and foetal developmental effects. 

With all this evidence, why do people still smoke, and why don’t governments step in? Drugs with far less devastating effects are illegal, so what gives?

Of course the role governments should play in determining or influencing public health has always been debated, as has the efficacy of banning particular substances and practices. The situation isn’t helped by the facts on the ground, an ad hoc regime in which relatively harmless substances such as marihuana are banned almost worldwide, while proven carcinogens like tobacco, costing millions in treatment, are merely ‘discouraged’ to varying degrees. Similarly, in some countries you have ‘cults’ like falun gong being treated as highly dangerous and criminal while more mainstream ‘cults’ such as christianity, no less or more nonsensical, being given a free ride. None of which promotes faith in government decision-making regarding our physical or psychological health.
Even so, I believe governments should play a role. We pay taxes to government so that it can organise our particular state more effectively for all of its citizens – and that means subsidising education, health and general welfare, to reduce inequalities of opportunity and outcome. Democratic government and an open society helps to reduce government ineptitude, ignorance and corruption. The science and technology sector in particular – a proudly elitist institution – should play a more significant role in government decision-making. But a real weakness of capitalist democracy is that political leaders are too often swayed by business leaders, and the money and influence they bring to the table, than by knowledge leaders. This obeisance paid to business success, with insufficient regard paid to scientific evidence, is possibly the greatest failing of modern political society.

Written by stewart henderson

January 5, 2020 at 10:47 am