Life Out of Balance

By Emeran A. Mayer, MD

Two weeks ago, I had thought about writing a post for this edition of the MGC Newsletter that deals with the possible relationship of an unhealthy diet, the epidemic of obesity and metabolic diseases, and the greater vulnerability of individuals on such a diet for COVID-19 related complications.

But when I looked in disbelief at the orange sun in the smoke filled sky over the weekend, turning into a deeply red sunset over the Santa Monica mountains later in the evening, I felt an urgency to expand the planned topic of individual health and wellness, to the health of the planet. In particular, I wanted to find an answer to the question: Could there be a relationship between the catastrophic events unfolding along the Pacific coast and our own health?

To say that what filled the news over the past two weeks has been shocking is a gross understatement: Following a historical heat wave – Los Angeles County had its hottest temperature on record when Woodland Hills hit 121 degrees on Sept. 6 – record breaking fires broke out in Northern California that turned into an epic firestorm hopscotching from the Mexican to Canadian borders, killed more than 30 people, wiped out entire towns and caused some of the worst air pollution ever seen in the region. In California and Oregon alone, fires have burned more than 5.0 million acres with California breaking its record of 1.8 million acres burned from 2 years ago.1 AAt the same time, and reminiscent of the movie The Day After, an Arctic front reached Colorado at the same time in early September, triggering the first heavy snowfall of the season, and leading to the powerful offshore winds on the Pacific coast which fanned the fires there. And a week later, a slow moving Hurricane hit the Gulf coast, with 4 more storms in the waiting – a historic first.

The devastating fires didn’t arrive out of the blue. Federal government scientists had predicted two years ago that greenhouse gas emissions could triple the frequency of severe fires across the Western states,2 in part due to the increase in extreme temperatures. Global warming has increased the odds of unprecedented heat extremes across more than 80% of the planet and according to Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh “has doubled or even, in some areas, tripled the odds of record-setting hot events” in California and the Western U.S.3 What used to be manageable, limited fires in Southern California in the 70s fanned by the St. Ana winds in October, has turned into something of an existential crisis for the states along the Pacific coast which will be extremely difficult and expensive to manage.

No matter how devastating the fires have been in California and Oregon, they are in no way the only catastrophic nature event unfolding in the world at the moment: Record breaking forest fires in the Siberian Arctic as well as man-made deforestation and fires in the Amazonian rainforest and the Platanal, the vast grasslands of Brazil have devastated an area of the size of 1,740 square miles in 2017 and 2019.4 The pace of this deforestation has been accelerating, with 65 percent occurring in 2019 alone. Due to this habitat destruction, millions of animals living in one of the richest ecosystems in the world have been killed and threatened with extinction. It is only a year ago that devastating record breaking wildfires ravaged Australia, destroying nearly 50 million acres of Eukalyptus forests and killing or displacing some 3 billion animals. The fires have been called one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.5

Historical and previous unimaginable changes to our environment are happening in all corners of the planet at an accelerating pace and with unprecedented intensity. Peak temperatures recorded in the Arctic this year have surpassed the temperatures observed in the Continental US. According to the Russian state weather authority, in the town of Verkhoyansk located on the Arctic circle, and known as one of the coldest places in the world, “… the maximum temperature [from June 18 to June 28, 2020] exceeded 86° F… with a peak on June 20 to 100.4°”, making this June the warmest in history. In Greenland, a big chunk of ice has broken away from the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf – the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden – in north-east Greenland.6 The ejected section covers about 42.5 square miles and based on satellite images has been shattered into many small pieces.

The desperate situation of Middle Eastern and African refugees, many of whom have left their countries to escape droughts and worsening economic situations, has come into focus when an overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos went up in flames leaving 13,000 men, women and children without shelter for several days, with nowhere to go. There is little doubt that the current refugee crisis in Europe is only the beginning of a mass migration of millions of people from their drought and disease stricken countries and regions of the world.

The destruction by the fires replaced for a while the news of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic with worldwide infection rates reaching 30 million (with rapidly growing in some of the most populous countries in the world), and death toll in the US of 200,000. An important risk factor for getting infected with the virus and for developing the most severe forms of the disease is the presence of so called pre-existing conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and chronic cardiovascular disease.7 The current epidemic in these disorders can largely be traced to an unhealthy Western diet, high in processed animal products and sugar, and low in plant based fiber and phytonutrients. The cheap production of such foods, in particular beef, by the large US food and agrobusiness companies is one of the main reasons for the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest to make room for gigantic cattle ranches and soybean fields to feed the cows.

Amidst all this apocalyptic news came a new BBC documentary by British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and an accompanying report in BBC news about the “catastrophic decline” of wildlife populations in the last 50 years, “as we burn forests, over-fish our seas and destroy wild areas” according to Tanya Steele, chief executive at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).8 Climate scientists recorded an average 68% fall in more than 20,000 populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish since 1970, and and there is no sign of slowing.

According to Attenborough, in order …“to achieve a new balance with the natural world and becoming stewards of our planet in the Anthropocene,”… will require systemic shifts in how we produce food, create energy, manage our oceans and use materials.” A similar appeal has previously been made in an extensive report on the relationship of our food production with human and planetary health by the Lancet EAT commission.9

“If nothing changes, populations will undoubtedly continue to fall, driving wildlife to extinction and threatening the integrity of the ecosystems on which we depend,” Attenborough added. The WWF report says the Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how nature and humans are intertwined. Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including habitat loss and disappearance of the interface between wild animals and humans, in addition to the consequences of industrial agriculture on the spread of microorganisms from inhumanely raised farm animals to humans will continue to increase in the future.

While each of the historic records mentioned above are shocking on their own, the crucial question is if these are isolated phenomena, or manifestation of a grave disease gripping our planet affecting everything from thousands of animal species, human health and climate. As a scientist I have been trained to focus in my research and reasoning only on simple causal relationships and avoid generalizations from associations of events. But experiencing the immediate impact of the California fires and connecting the dots between the world wide events unfolding during the past few months, I can’t help but coming to the conclusion that all the above listed problems are in some way closely interconnected, and that human destruction of the elaborate ecosystem of all life on planet is the root cause of all the problems. As systems scientists can tell us, a complex ecosystem can withstand severe perturbations, but if it is pushed beyond the limits of its resilience – a point that the world may have already arrived at – it will reach a tipping point before it collapses with grave consequences for all its members. We should take the worldwide epidemic of obesity and metabolic diseases from diets that are bad for us and the planet, the shocking effect of the ongoing pandemic and the historic weather patterns and devastating fires as warning signs that this tipping point is near.

References

  1. www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-14/extreme-heat-rare-summer-snow-brought-unprecedented-west-coast-firestorms
  2. khn.org/morning-breakout/firefighters-exhausted-more-people-flee-as-winds-fuel-deadly-wildfires
  3. www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-13/climate-change-wildfires-california-west-coast
  4. www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-08-19/amazon-rainforest-fires-burn-continues-despite-promises
  5. www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-53549936
  6. www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/dismay-huge-chunk-greenlands-ice-cap-breaks-rcna117
  7. www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/07/chronic-conditions-put-nearly-half-us-adults-risk-severe-covid-19
  8. www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54091048
  9. www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext

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