Challenges Should Not Tear Us Apart

Scott Deshefy


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It’s a sad commentary on America that our greatest challenges – the pandemic, climate change, health, wealth and educational disparities, and racial injustice – not only fail to bring us together, but widen divisions. Both major parties have not only deepened those fissures, but given them orthodoxy. Now, democracy, once a serviceable impasse to candidates with dangerous ideas and disruptive impulses, no longer assures even semblances of progress. Sowing discontent, stoking hatred, and disregarding facts and science comprise a tactical lexicon for getting votes and undermining truth. And until reason and empathy “entangle” within our social consciousness, behaving in lockstep motion the way photons do on opposite ends of the quantum universe, our future is bleak.

As vaccinations against COVID-19 continue here and abroad, the United States remains the only western nation refusing to join COVAX, an organization of 180 nations dedicated to equitable access and fair apportionment of vaccines to poorer nations. Rich countries also benefit from the organization by having the world’s entire portfolio of vaccines at their disposal, thereby avoiding risks of backing one or two sera of limited effectiveness. Trump claims he opted out of COVAX to spite the WHO, but the decision was likely based on inside-track advantages the U.S. had in getting vaccines and lack of altruism. Such “vaccine nationalism,” where wealthy governments sign agreements with drug manufacturers early-on, getting first dibs on COVID countermeasures, will cost poorer nations hundreds of thousands of lives. Countries with fat wallets have already secured over 7.5 billion doses of vaccines from various makers. The UK, for example, hoarded enough to jab its population several times over. Now, an estimated 25% of the world’s population won’t have access to inoculations before 2022. As promising as Pfizer’s and Moderna’s injections have been thus far, newly evolving strains of coronavirus could make access to global vaccine banks critical in years to come, particularly if undersupplied nations become SARS-CoV petri dishes. It’s time we redefined our global community role, not just in terms of crisis intervention, but crisis prevention as well. 

Ecology teaches that seemingly separate organisms are often connected and dependent on one another’s welfare. Consider what lies below us whenever we walk amongst vegetation. Beneath boreal, temperate and tropical forest floors, covering 1/3 of the land, information superhighways allow plants to communicate with each other, rendering mutual assistance. That’s where mycelia, expansive branching fungal networks of tubular filaments (hyphae), put our Internet to shame with kilometers-long mycorrhizal (literally “fungus-root”) circuitry extending like enormous, ever-growing party lines. By linking to networks symbiotically, trees and other plants exchange carbon, control developing offspring by regulating sunlight (so seedlings won’t grow too fast), and even share nutrients and information with neighbors. Victims of insect damage may signal other plants to bolster their defenses. Some floral communities collectively restore vegetation damaged by storms, humans and other animals. Plants provide carbon-rich photosynthetic sugars to the fungi, and get phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients extracted from the soil in return.

Environmentalist David Suzuki writes and lectures how the soil, water, air and sunlight are common components of all of us, cleansed and renewed by webs of life to which every organism belongs. When we take a deep breath, 3 to 4 liters of air enters our lungs, about a liter of which remains no matter how hard we exhale. Otherwise, our alveoli, where oxygen and carbon dioxide enter and exit the blood, would collapse. By sharing a room with other people we very quickly absorb atoms into our bodies that were once integral parts of everyone else in the confined space. Let’s extend that thought experiment further. Argon, which comprises 1% of the air we breathe, is inert. Argon atoms never bind with hemoglobin, become part of our bodies or react in metabolic transformations. The same is true of argon taken into leaves, spiracles of insects, skins of earthworms and lungs of whales and long-extinct dinosaurs. Astronomer Harlow Shapley once calculated 3.0 x 10 to the 19th power argon atoms are inhaled and expelled in each of our breaths, 100 million of which we take before turning 20 years old. Argon diffuses and mixes so rapidly in the atmosphere that, after each breath, 15 argon atoms from that exhalation will likely be inhaled by us a year later. In the course of our breathing, the longer we live, it’s a virtual certainty we’ve inhaled argon atoms breathed by Gandhi and Hannibal, Albert Schweitzer and Joan of Arc, Madam Curie and Einstein, passenger pigeons, giant sequoias, tarantulas and mastodons. Our descendants will inhale inert gases we expelled. Argon atoms that once touched the lungs of Diana Rigg, Samantha Eggar, Dorothy Dandridge and Catherine the Great have flowed into mine deeper than a French kiss. The air joins us all together, intimately. It’s a “sacrament,” Suzuki says, omnipotent and omnipresent, affirming our connection to all that lived or ever will. How can we pollute it, destroy another life, waste a single lungful on politically motivated hatred?

Scott Deshefy is a biologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.