Our world has gotten more complex, but it is safer than it has ever been. Paradoxically, it seems people are less comfortable than ever. Cancer is the new communist. It's in everything new that we don't understand. My mother is afraid of her microwave. Watching network news is gruesome. People overpay for food of inferior nutritional value and drink bottled water in their homes. I just don't understand. We still have problems, but overall things are pretty good right now. The middle class lives better than medieval kings. Life expectancy is higher than ever. Essential products are cheaper than ever. I think those that understand technology have a responsibility to explain it's purpose and safety to the world. Here I describe a few that I keep hearing about. Relax, technology is on our side.
Radiation from Electronics
Electromagnetic radiation, like gravity, is one of the four fundamental forces of physics. When an electron loses energy, it 'radiates' a photon. All light is radiation. Microwaves, and radio waves like those used by cell phones, are photons of lower frequency than light, and thus lower energy. At extremely high energy levels, like in a nuclear reactor, photons have enough energy to potentially break the chemical bonds in cells, damaging health, but even nuclear reactors are well shielded enough to ensure their next door neighbors have no ill effects. Short of an atomic blast, radiation is nothing to be afraid of. Furthermore, I consider modern nuclear reactor designs the safest form of energy production.
Chemicals in Food
A chemical is any substance with a defined chemical formula, like water (H2O). Everything is made out of chemicals, from gasoline to carrots. In fact, beta-Carotene is a hydrocarbon, like Methane. It is possible, and prudent, to add some additional chemicals to food that have benefits like improving shelf life. Spoiled food is dangerous and unhealthy. These chemicals are heavily tested and regulated by the FDA and the USDA, which ensures their safety in the amounts used. Agriculture uses safe chemicals as well, like anhydrous ammonia which vastly improves corn yield, and poses no danger to animals or the environment.
We also use chemicals like pesticides to improve the yield of our crops. Caffeine, for example, is an effective pesticide, and is consumed daily by billions. It is the dose that matters. I personally think the amount used in the U.S. is too high, since agricultural workers frequently fall ill, and countries like Sweden demonstrated a 50% reduction in pesticide use without a significant effect on yield.1 However, refusing to use modern fertilizers and pesticides entirely is imprudent, and by the time food reaches the consumer the levels are negligible.2
Just because something is natural that does not mean it is safe or healthy. All-natural, fresh, organic, gluten-free scorpion venom would sitll be quite deadly. Natural plants are rife with toxins and allergens and the source of most narcotics.
If one does not trust the current evidence for the safety of these artificial substances, what level of proof would you require?
Hormones, Antibiotics and Processed Food
A hormone is a chemical that the body uses to control the behavior of multiple cells. Dairy cows already generate the hormone bovine somatotrophin in their pituitary gland. In the United States, about 20% of cows are given extra, which increases their milk production 11-16%. Milk produced by these cows is identical to that produced by untreated cows.3 This hormone has absolutely no effect on humans,4 though it does have negative long term effects on the cows,5 making the hormone's use an ethical question, not a human health concern. For what it's worth, I don't think it's worth it.
Almost all cows raised for meat in the U.S. are administered a series of 3 natural steroids, and 3 synthetic hormones, which increase their lean muscle mass. Despite extensive investigation by the FDA, there is no scientific evidence any of these substances have an adverse effect on human health at the levels used. It is easy to overdose rats with the hormones and scare people but it would be practically impossible to consume enough through meat to have any effect on a human. Pay close attention to the difference between in vitro (outside the organism) and in vivo (in a live organism) results.
Antibiotics of course increase the animals' resistance to disease. The FDA takes strict measures to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance6, and there is no evidence of any adverse health effects in humans.
There is no evidence organic food is any healthier than conventional food,7 despite higher costs. Food processing has a negligible effect on nutritional content.8 The calories from "raw" food and the calories from processed food are identical to the body. It is the amount that matters. Food that is processed can even have additional nutrients added in, like iodized salt, and fortified rice, which has gone a long way in eliminating deficiencies in the U.S. as well as abroad. In fact, canned fruits and vegetables are usually healthier than their fresh counterparts since they are sealed right after picking, which preserves the micronutrients.9
The economic and environmental cost of agricultural is a problem, but reverting to old tactics is not the solution. Technology is. Producing nutrition more efficiently and reducing its waste will do far more than expensive health food stores. It is preservatives and artificial sweeteners that have real potential to combat waste and obesity. If we want solutions we're going to have to stop being afraid of progress.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Humans have always been genetically engineering their food. We select the best crops from the previous season and plant those. This gives us bananas without seeds, yellow corn, and tasty carrots, which used to be a bitter white root. Modern genetically engineered crops are larger and more robust than their natural counterparts and may soon have a significant impact on global malnutrition. Golden rice, for example, includes beta-Carotene and could help the hundreds of thousands of children who die annually from Vitamin A deficiency. Genetically modified foods are of course heavily regulated by the USDA and FDA and are completely safe. In fact, controlling the evolution of a food is likely much safer than trusting it to evolve on its own, which could produce any number of toxins or allergens.
Like all technologies, GM is a tool, that could potentially be used irresponsibly. I personally do not think Monsanto is using this technology responsibly. The journal Nature devoted an entire issue to GM and seemed to come to the conclusion that GM research should continue, but should not be performed by competitive private industry. I think that is a reasonable compromise.
Fluoride and Metals in Water
Tap water in the U.S. is regulated by the EPA, which has even stricter standards than the FDA, which regulates bottled water. Heavy metal content is negligible. Your body can easily handle orders of magnitude more metal than you will ever get from tap water with no noticeable effects. Chloramine is usually added, which prevents the growth of pathogens and has no effect on humans. Fluoride is added as well, which is completely safe at the levels used and has been hailed by the American Dental Association as "unquestionably one of the safest and most beneficial, cost-effective public health measures for preventing, controlling, and in some cases reversing, tooth decay."10 I feel uncomfortable drinking non-fluoridated water.
Violence has Declined
Our ancestors were having the equivalent of a world war every few years. We have gone a generation without one. Violent crime in the United States has been declining since colonial times.11 The odds of being murdered in the U.S. is practically negligible at 4.8 in 100,000, and crime of every kind has decreased since 1991.12 Shooting sprees are rare enough to become international news. In fact, as safe as we are I find it difficult to justify the high incarceration rate, especially of non-violent offenders. Even our most violent cities pale in comparison to the murderous competition of the animal kingdom. We are slowly winning the war with ourselves and focusing on disease, hunger, and poverty. This is progress.
We Still Have Problems
There is still much work to do. Our energy consumption and impact on the environment is unsustainable. Some areas struggle with hunger, others obesity. There is still much too large a disparity of safety, health, quality of life, and education globally. We don't know how the mind works or how proteins fold. However, I believe in the second derivative. The rate at which we are developing technologies to solve our problems is acceptable. Every time I receive an issue of Nature I read the cover and cheer out loud. We are making progress. We are humans. We can do it.
Why do people insist on believing that things are getting worse? Perhaps it is an extension of the observation of local entropy, or a latent belief in an 'end times' that is present in most religions. In reality, our ancestors were starving, miserable, and ignorant and today we have abundant food and warmth and the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips. We have setbacks, but they are temporary. It does not take much perspective to realize that larger time scales invariably show improvement and progress.
Even life gets better. I am much more knowledgeable and experienced than my foolish high school counterpart. I look forward to the proficiency and stability that comes with age, and am optimistic about the tranquility and wisdom of seniority.
People today are much more likely to die from the complications of an unnaturally long, enjoyable life than war or famine. No one has ever been hospitalized by artificial sweeteners or fluoridated tap water. Curious what actually has been overwhelmingly linked to the onset of cancer, heart disease, and a host of other ailments? Stress. Our world is more peaceful, healthy, and productive than ever, yet people are terrified of it. To really lower one's risk of cancer one of the best things to do is stop worrying and enjoy your life and the people in it. The only modern idea worth being afraid of is the fear-mongering itself.
Given that we are continually receiving additional energy from the sun it makes sense that our planet would run up, not down. Despite what a tired mind would believe, things are going to get better, not worse. The future is going to be unrecognizably awesome.
1: Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216.