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Razor Blades and Bare Feet

February 28, 2012 - 08:10 -- Mark Benedict

I saw in interesting quote recently: interesting because it was so naïve. In an article of “Journal of Peace Research” entitled "The publics’ concern for global warming: A cross-national study of 47 countries," the stupefying statement is made:


“Variation across nations in wealth and CO2 emissions is not significantly related to the publics’ assessments of the problem, and, somewhat counterintuitively, people from countries relatively more exposed to climate-related natural disasters are less concerned about global warming.”


This apparently surprising observation conflicted with their hypothesis that:


“Citizens in countries that are exposed to climate-related natural disasters will be more concerned about global warming than citizens in countries that are less affected by such disasters."


In spite of the unexpected finding, the authors soldiered bravely on with an astute revelation inspired by their result:


“What can explain this counterintuitive finding? One possibility is that disaster-prone countries are typically countries with other and perhaps more acute problems worrying the public.”


Think so, maybe? Counterintuitive? Entirely predictable was my response. 


Five of the “least concerned” countries are in Africa. Last week in Africa, I observed hundreds of scooter riders without helmets – including mothers with infants strapped to their backs, cars driving at night without headlights, a 5-year old leading a 4 and 3 year old across a busy highway, a water well with a thigh-high railing in which the water was 8 meters down and from which children drew water, two overturned trucks, others with loads so top-heavy that the vehicle leaned precariously, numerous injuries, hernias, swollen bellies and hundreds of people living in subsistence conditions. I can only imagine the concerns of millions more of the latter whose concerns were hidden from view: sufficient fuel, acute health problems, inadequate diet, sick animals.


The one image that visually epitomized the difference between the environmental concerns of the affluent West and the “least concerned” of Africa was a four year old tee-shirted boy who curiously followed our group around in bare feet. As I looked at the rubbish pile on which he was standing, I noticed a shiny discarded double-edged razor blade in front of him. Was this a cause for alarm? Did a frantic mother rush forward to protect him? Did the elders meet to discuss the matter and take action prevent further exposures? No, no and no.


Exposure to such hazards – and worse – are everyday experiences. For those in the developing world and countries in which natural disasters and tropical diseases are common, the hazards they care about clear. The effects are immediate and certain.


Like computer-model generated scenarios of future climate cataclysms, speculative hazards from genetically modified mosquitoes are neither immediate nor certain. It makes sense that the hazards that a person living on the edge will care about in the context of GM mosquitoes are those with direct effects on health and welfare: “Will it hurt my livestock? Will it make me sick? Will I get a new disease? Will it ruin my crops?” Issues such as horizontal gene transfer, shifts in mosquito population mating structure and mutations that affect gene expression are merely curious intellectual indulgences  – at least relative to what occupies their thoughts of the future.


This likely means that the focus of those who engage communities and assess opinions will find little concern among the poorest for the speculative concerns raised by many scientists and environmentalists. It is the responsibility of those developing GM mosquitoes to do it safely and with regard for all risks - even the speculative ones. But I suspect that what will resonate with those who are directly affected by vector borne diseases are threats that are much, much more immediate and certain – even more so than razor blades near bare feet.