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What Now? 

Local thinkers tackle big questions.

click to enlarge Joel McCullough, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Joel McCullough, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District

In this issue, we’ve taken a page from the Edge Foundation, a brain trust of scientists and intellectuals that annually publishes a book of answers to big, open-ended questions.

This summer, we wrote to more than 100 of the smartest people we know in the Inland Northwest — writers, politicians, scientists, artists, teachers, conservatives, liberals — and asked them one of two questions: “Where did we go wrong?” and “Now what?” We let them answer the question from any angle, field or point of view they desired. All that we asked was that they try to hone in on something small and specific — in 350 words or less. (We whittled them even further, in order to print as many answers as possible.)

Here are their responses.

— JOEL SMITH

PUBLIC HEALTH

Get Serious About Public Health

Over the last century, public health advances have led to a 40-year increase in lifespan, mainly from broad-based public health programs like sanitation of food and water. In that time, the field has grown in breadth and depth, today addressing a wide range of issues, including old and emerging infectious diseases, chronic diseases, injury prevention, birth defects, bioterrorism and, of course, pandemic influenza.

However, at the same time that we are faced with these broad responsibilities to protect the public’s health, funding for public health agencies at the state and local levels has been severely diminished, limiting the capacity to prevent disease in our communities. For example, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the budget of about three-tenths of 1 percent of the nation’s health care costs.

If we are really serious about health care reform, public health must play a central role. That means getting serious about responsible funding for the public good.

— JOEL McCULLOUGH (above) is the director of public health for the Spokane Regional Health District.

POPULATION

Make Room for Everybody Else

Working in rural China, I see our world crisis clearly. There are 1.3 billion people here who want all the things I enjoy every day: hot water, a car or motor bike to get around easily, the opportunity to make a living and move up in a cash economy, education, electric lights and appliances, new clothing, shoes.

But if all of my rural Chinese clients lived like me, a quiz on Myfootprint.org suggests, the world would use the resources of almost 3.5 Earths. (Whereas if the rest of the world lived like my clients, we’d use the resources of only 0.53 Earths.)

Who am I to deny their chance to develop and have all the comforts I’ve had all my life? Renewable energy and energy-efficient design is the only path towards a good life for everyone on earth.

We have the technology to produce the energy we all need from the sun, wind, water and earth, and we have the intelligence and creativity to make our technologies better. We can position ourselves as the world leaders in renewable energy — the “go-to” guys for the technologies, materials and products. We can create a new economy for ourselves while showing a sustainable path to development and comfort for all, in balance with natural systems.

If we don’t do it, China will.

— KELLY LERNER designs healthy, net-zero-energy homes throughout the Pacific Northwest and China and has been named one of the top eco-architects in the United States.

NEUROLOGY

Figure Out the Brain (Ours and Theirs)

“Human animals, and no other, build fires and wheels, diagnose each other’s illnesses, communicate using symbols, navigate with maps, risk their lives for ideals. . . punish strangers for breaking rules, imagine impossible scenarios, and teach each other how to do all of the above.” So read a recent article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. We also hide our genitals, manufacture new religions, thumb our noses at others, and screw the trusting and unwitting with Ponzi schemes, etc. etc.

All mammals have the same basic body plan and brain equipment — we just have more neocortex. But our superb “thinking-cap” is essentially tabula rasa, a blank slate, at birth — similar to RAM space in your personal computer. Down in lower brain regions we all have very similar inbuilt capacities — the same hungers and emotions, even simple-minded laughter. Our higher mind only becomes uniquely complex after we learn lots of stuff.

Sure, human imagination and beliefs are truly unique. But we are the only ones that can be unjust and unkind. And the biggest human tragedy is that so many believe so much of the nonsense programmed into their higher brains. The neocortex is where learning and culture do their fine and awful things. But the facts speak loudly. We are “just” another species of animal. We still have so much to learn from the other creatures, and they deserve our respect. And what then?

Once we understand their deeply emotional minds, we will better understand our own. . . and perhaps learn how to make this a better world for everyone.

— JAAK PANKSEPP is Professor and Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University. He is also the author of Affective Neuroscience and editor of the Textbook of Biological Psychiatry

TECH

Reinvent the Wheel

I am more hopeful today about the human condition than I ever have been in 63 years of living. Two reasons.

The first is what neuroscience is discovering about the power and adaptability of the human brain. With its hundred billion neurons and hundred trillion synapses, the brain is capable of more thoughts than there are molecules in the known universe. This represents all the cognitive power necessary to solve global warming or the inconvenient truth of your choice.

The second is the power of our technology. The iPhone, among many other things, is a hand-held repository of human knowledge that makes the lost library of ancient Alexandria resemble a living-room magazine rack.

Twitter is a fissile, or viral, communication medium enabling the infinite and instantaneous creation of human “villages” of interest in far-flung locales. Obsolete political/organizational mechanisms of repression, deception, manipulation (think China, Iraq, Wall Street) are no match for the way just these two technological expressions combine with the human survival imperative.

— LARRY SHOOK is a veteran Spokane journalist, publisher and corporate communications consultant.

WATER

Use Water Wisely

We need to rethink how we manage our natural resources and how we can use those resources in a way that both creates jobs and protects our environment. One way is to develop a new infrastructure to reuse treated wastewater from our wastewater plants in industrial facilities, parks, and golf courses instead of simply dumping it into our river. For too long, we have ignored the economic benefits of using wastewater as a resource, while spending hundreds of millions of dollars finding ways to dump it into the river to the detriment of the water quality. It simply makes no sense to use our clean, cold aquifer water when we have a great alternative that also protects our river.

We also need to green our downtown and protect our river by developing green roofs to capture stormwater runoff (which is a significant source of river pollution), and rooftop solar panels to reduce our dependence on environmentally damaging hydropower and other harmful energy sources.

— RICK EICHSTAEDT is an attorney with the Center for Justice and serves as the Spokane Riverkeeper.

TECH

Tweet No More Forever

Now what? On the theory that culture moves in pendulum swings, I predict that Americans will grow weary of Facebook, follow nobody on Twitter, allow their blogs to languish, use theircell phones only for 911 calls, and devote themselves to the solitary contemplation of wildflowers and migrating warblers. Social networking willbe replaced bywhatTime magazine will call “TheNew Aloofness” and CNN will call “Anti-Social Networking.”

— JIM KERSHNER is a columnist and staff writer with The Spokesman-Review and author of Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life.

ETHICS

Purge Your Values

They say a recession purges an economy. Weak businesses don’t survive. I wonder if it could be argued that recessions also purge our values. When we feel the squeeze, weak values get weaker and strong values get stronger. We realize that we can do without things. And we become more aware than ever that we can’t do without relationships. In our culture, materials intended to enrich our relationships often become “ends” rather than means. Relationships get sacrificed on the altar of materialism.

This economic crisis needs to be more than a wake-up call. We need it to be the kind of slap in the face that brings lifeless values back to our consciousness.

— BILL ROBINSON is in his 17th year as president of Whitworth University and in his 24th year as a college president.

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