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Words of warning, words of wisdom

At a time when weather and the environment is making all the news headlines and is rendering hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people homeless around the globe, rather than burying our heads in the proverbial sand we need, instead, to consult with the experts in order to get answers to our questions about global warming, pandemic diseases, overpopulation and the like.

With a lot of these kinds of issues hitting home here in western North Carolina (We’ve recently experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, wide weather swings from record-breaking rainfall to dangerous draught, as well as unprecedented land development.), we are fortunate enough to be able to get some council on these matters from experts living here among us. One is Dr. James Fouts of the Green’s Creek community in Jackson County. A scientist with degrees in toxicology, pharmacology and chemistry, Dr. Fouts has not only taught at such institutions as Iowa University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and N.C. State, but has served on committees for the World Health Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (which was founded in 1967). He was also a member, then head of the University of Iowa Institute of Toxicology from 1957-1970, as well as being a member of a National Advisory Committee that came up with the definitive finding that asbestos was harmful to humans.

Earlier in his career, Fouts was involved in the scientific research that helped lead to the banning of DDT. In the 1980s, he was part of a coalition of more than 200 people from several countries representing agencies focusing on the study of global warming, which included the EPA, the Air Force, the Department of Agriculture, NOAA, and various NGOs and others. With these kinds of credentials, I sought out his opinions on the state of the global environment, as well as that of the immediate area — Western North Carolina.

On an unseasonably warm day, Dr. Fouts and I sat down over corned beef and grilled cheese sandwiches in the New Horizons restaurant in Dillsboro, where we spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the science and the politics regarding the issues of global warming, overpopulation, and disease, as well as the implications of these findings on the future of human inhabitation of the planet, in general, and on Western North Carolina, in particular.

Problems

“I have been part of the global warming (GW) studies for the past 25 years or so,” says Dr. Fouts. “As early as 1980, we had scientific information to support the theories that are, today, being accepted as fact. We tried to tell people then about the possible effects of global warming, but nobody listened. In essence, we’ve wasted almost 25 years when we could have been taking preventative action and creating systems of recovery.

“We are witnessing now the rapid escalation of extreme weather systems and earth changes. Everything is, and will continue to, come at us with increasing volatility and frequency, including North Atlantic ocean oscillation and changes in locations of the jet stream. El Nino and El Nina systems are now coming almost every year instead of every five or six years. In North and South America, which have been the focal point of our research here in the U.S., we see dramatic changes in recent years, especially on the coasts (east and west). We are going to lose many miles of U.S. coastline eventually. The big storms will be the forewarnings of this eventuality.

“We are finding certain species of fish — that used to only be found off the west coast of South America — way up north! We’re just coming out of the most active hurricane season in recent history, if not ever, and we’re going to see more of this, and with hurricanes of increasing intensity.”

When asked how these changing global weather patterns will play out in Western North Carolina, Dr. Fouts did not mince words: “In the Southeast, as in the southwest of our country, much of the impact will come in the form of water. Either too little or too much. Too little in the sense that there will be prolonged periods of drought. What rainfall we will have will be in large doses, deluges. So we can expect big storms and more flooding, such as we have had in the last two years. There will be more localized weather events. The kind of evacuation procedures that we’ve experienced this past year, will be more frequent for people living along the rivers. These extremes of hot, dry weather and excessive amounts of rainfall in short spurts, will throw the whole ecosystem off-kilter here in the mountains. Our forests will be affected by these large ‘mood swings’ in the weather, and the trees will begin dying off, leaving, eventually, over time, only grassy hillsides. Wildlife, and especially the larger animals, will, if possible, begin migrating northward to Canada, while some smaller species will simply just disappear.

“We used to say that this would take 100 years until we would see some of these kinds of results. Now we are saying that we can expect to see some of these kinds of changes within 50 years or less. The rate of escalation of changes, world-wide as well as locally, has sped up, and what we thought (25 ago) we would not see for 50 years, we are, in fact, seeing now!

“We’ve never seen so many strong hurricanes before. In fact, we’ve run out of names for new hurricanes. And these hurricanes are coming farther and farther inland, which is also practically unprecedented. It’s already too late to stop many kinds of changes we are going to see. Instead, we must be prepared to go into a respond mode of consciousness and action, while still doing what we can to better minimize the human impact on the environment.

“Western North Carolina is one of the most rapidly growing areas in the country. Here in Jackson and Macon counties the past two years, we’ve seen an unprecedented boom in land development. In Jackson County alone they’re predicting as many as 2,000 new homes will soon go up on the slopes and ridge tops of these mountains. The carrying capacity of this county won’t hold this amount of growth. Water supplies, roads, air quality, etc. will all be over-taxed. As much as I hate to say it, we can’t fight too rapid development without some sort of zoning. The local people need to know that erosion kills brook trout. All this development is going to hurt the local fishing.”

Several years ago Dr. Fouts attended a conference of scientists, governmental agency officials, and environmentalists for a symposium on population and global warming at Robert Redford’s Sundance Ranch in Utah. One result of these meetings was a public statement by Paul Ehrlich, of Harvard University, that we “have to control overpopulation! The solution of all other problems is dependant upon controlling overpopulation.” While this was a general statement which pertained to the whole planet, it could very well be seen as a warning to what we are seeing right here in Western North Carolina with regards to the recent boom in the building of second and third homes from out-of-state residents, people who don’t have a lifetime investment in the region and so who do not know nor are sensitive to the region’s peculiarities and/or needs.

“Here in the mountains, as everywhere else,” says Dr. Fouts, “there will be a shortage of specific regionally-produced foods due to weather-related events over time. With the influx of people onto the land in Western North Carolina, and the amount of income at their disposal, it will cause a regional inflation. Prices of foods will go up, along with other regionally-produced goods that will have to come from outside the region. If we can’t grow berries, corn and potatoes here in the mountains, what can we grow?”

In addition to the weather and the population problems that loom large on the horizon according to various scientists and experts, there is also the concern of the exportation of disease. As a pharmacologist and toxicologist, Dr. Fouts is no stranger to the studies of disease and various pollutants that can worsen them.

“Pollution,” he says, “doesn’t respect any natural boundaries. We get China’s pollution, Europe gets ours. It’s the same dynamic as what is happening here in WNC as a result of the winds that bring us emissions from coal-fired energy plants in Tennessee — which, incidentally, emit much more radiation than nuclear power.

“These pollutants of power production may increase many of our most common ‘modern’ diseases (such as lung diseases and cancer). There are direct correlations here. We have shown this to be the case in the lab. In my opinion, it will be diseases and immigration pressures, not wars, that will be the source of our future ‘holocausts.’

“Then there are the NOX particulates that come chiefly from such sources as coal-fired energy plants and especially from automobile emissions. The higher the compression in the engine, the more NOX emissions are released. So much for the high-compression/high-performance engine. NOX attached to particulates are some of the most toxic components of auto exhaust. More toxic than CO2, and we’re not studying this enough now! We can’t depend on the government to protect us. The EPA has too little say in the government’s pollution controls.

“Meanwhile, the stratospheric ozone layer is getting increasingly thinner — which means that there is more high energy and ultraviolet ray penetration from the sun, and more skin cancer and eye damage, and a warming of the earth and oceans, which is increasing our problem of global warming.

“Diseases will also be moving,” he continues. “There are many tropical diseases, for example, for which we don’t have any or good cures. Some of these diseases from the tropical areas of South America are now showing up in Texas. We are seeing an increase in cases of malaria. And then there is the business of the mutating viruses (such as the avian flu and HIV). The ‘crash programs’ to combat these sorts of viruses don’t work. It will take probably 10 years, for example, to catch up with an avian flu-like virus and be able to effectively inoculate people against it.”

Solutions

“Sand and concrete barriers won’t work against the kind of ocean assaults we are facing,” says Dr. Fouts. Why are we rebuilding along our coastlines? The events that are devastating them, now, are only going to get worse. The government is using Orwellian language to talk about these things. We need a new language in order to speak more directly about these issues. Instead of the Clean Air Act it should be called The Dirty Air Imperative. Instead of the Healthy Forest Initiative, it should be called Leave No Tree Behind. We need to inform lay people. The lay person in this country is not truly informed on these issues.

“If the politicians told the truth about what they wanted and what they were doing, no one would buy it. In the U.S., the energy and the transportation companies don’t want to be restricted. Because of this and their strong lobbies, we are totally dependent on the automobile. People should be asking, ‘Do I really have to have five cars?’

“There is very little public transportation in this country any more. I believe that part of the answer to global warming is using public transportation. In this regard, Japan and Germany, for example, have technology and systems that are way ahead of us. If this isn’t bad enough, the U.S. government is purposefully trying to dismantle Amtrak and is essentially absent in the global dialogue concerning the environment. If we don’t participate, we’ll get cut-out by the other nations, and we’ll be isolated, even more isolated than we already are.”

Getting the word out

Dr. Fouts continued the conversation by emphasizing a need to form alliances. “The problems we are predicting for the future,” said Fouts, “are comprised of many elements, and no one agency nor any single country can control these problems by themselves. Most of the other countries are already preparing. But what we need are alliances, both on a national level and an international level. Along with these alliances, we need to focus more on better science education, rather than using only information given to us by business-financed Web sites, newspaper reporting and advertising.

“Information distribution is key for our coming needs. The key question is: How do we get it to the people who need it? As we see more and more natural events and changes, we will also see more and more of the U.S. population becoming like the Third World. The Green Revolution has essentially failed. There are more people to feed, now, and less available grain to feed them.

“This brings up the whole issue of overpopulation. We need, even here in the U.S., to address population, reproduction and the number of children. I ask myself, ‘What is wrong with a country that tries to govern sex at the expense of food and health care?’ Our country (the U.S.) has been called the most addictive culture ever. Sex is one of these addictions. We are one of the few countries in the world today that does not address ways to encourage restricting the number of children per couple. In fact, the healthy nuclear family is eroding because there are too many people. The usual argument against this kind of restriction is: ‘It’s our God-given right.’ This is nonsense. God doesn’t drive the sex urges! It’s hormones. It’s chemicals that drive these urges. This kind of fundamentalism in our beliefs about sex and reproduction is part of our problem. We (humans) perceive what we believe, regardless of the facts! Hence, why fundamentalism is so dangerous to our present condition. India, China and Japan — who were three of the worst countries whereas population growth was concerned a generation ago — have effectively slowed or stopped population growth and are recording some numbers, now, of less than two children per family. In the U.S., the figure is still slightly more than two children per couple. But one real problem on the horizon will be due to the large migrating populations. We will be seeing more and more of this — refugees from other countries coming to our borders — as people are forced to leave their countries because of the inability to grow crops or raise animals.”

When asked how we are going to approach the anticipated problems of population, development, and natural disasters, Dr. Fouts responded by saying that economics and ethics can be major keys to providing alternatives in the coming years. “I believe that here in the USA, practical economics may be better than the Bible. If you want people to change their lifestyle, charge them.”

On the subject of solutions, Dr. Fouts was emphatic that our current transportation systems are inadequate to handle the amount of human movement during normal times as well as in times of crisis. He was quick to add that while our weather models are better, our prediction capabilities better, and our new technologies to measure storms and storm surges are better, there still needs to be much more attention paid to our “people-moving systems,” as he calls them. “Our present systems are archaic,” he says. “The whole U.S. Transportation effort is loaded with ‘bridges and roads to nowhere.’ We need, desperately, to rebuild our railroad structures in the U.S. to relieve some of the pressures on our road systems, which are already overtaxed. Almost all our large cities in this country are plagued with gridlock. Finding causes for our problems of overpopulation and global warming aren’t hard. What we need, more than anything, is more media cooperation for the education of the lay person, so that science and our social structures will be working hand in hand to come up with comprehensive solutions to our problems. At the same time, remember: good science doesn’t necessarily mean good ethics.”

While still active in the scientific community, Dr. Fouts is also an ordained Episcopal priest. From 1977 to 1978 during a sabbatical, he enjoyed visits with persons at the Jung Institute in Switzerland, followed by four years of study at the Duke Divinity School in Durham. In recent years, he has been something of a ‘circuit rider’ among Episcopal parishes in Western North Carolina. Currently, however, he is the supply priest for St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye community in Franklin. As an ordained member of America’s religious community, the reverend Fouts is also concerned with the spiritual implications of scientific study, as well as our social ills.

“I come from a family of preachers and teachers,” says Fouts. “I had two grandmothers who were preachers. I believe genes determine a large part of what we become. In a sense, my church work is my activism. We all can do a little, and a lot of ‘little’ adds up. The ethical aspects of the environment are real. We, as humans, don’t have the right to degrade the environment. In the modern Bible, for instance, there are still passages, we all know, that cite man’s ‘dominion’ over all the land. I believe this is a wrong translation. From my studies in ancient scripture, I believe that the phrase should read “stewardship” of the land. We’re not paying enough attention to stewardship. Instead of focusing on more development and better markets, we should be focusing on taking care of things. We’re all in this situation together. The lifeboat metaphor is a very real one, these days. With the kinds of world changes that are coming, either we’re all in this together, or none of us will survive.

“When I talk to my parishioners, I tell them ‘Wake up! We need to take charge of our lives!’ Take care of our contribution to and our damage of the environment. This is our job and our responsibility. We can’t depend on the government to do it for us. Begin, now, a life without addictions. Especially the kinds of addictions, like cars, that put a heavy stress upon ourselves and our environment. It’s time for everyone to wake up, pull our heads out of the sands of denial and ignorance, and get on with the work that needs to be done.”

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to Smoky Mountain News. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods — which first appeared in monthly installments in these pages — was published by the Univ. of Georgia Press and has recently been awarded the 2005 Ragan Old North State Award for the best book of nonfiction in the state of North Carolina.)

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