Monday, July 27, 2015

Poverty and Child Brain Damage

Poverty and Child Brain Damage
Thomas Riggins

Politicians love to tell us that we live in the richest and greatest country in the world despite the fact that our actual ranking when it comes to overall living standards and democratic rights is far from numero uno. We rank 23rd on the "Satisfaction with Life Index" (Cf. Wikipedia). But no one will get elected telling us we are the 23rd best ├╝ber alles in the world. 

More to the point, when it comes to how we treat children, it's telling to find out that UNICEF ranks the U.S. at 34 out of 35 industrialized countries (we beat out Romania but eight other former east European socialist countries take better care of their children than we do)-- Washington Post 4-15- 2013.

It just so happens that 22% of children in the United States live in poverty and are apt to remain there as long as the Republicans and the right use their political power to cut welfare, food stamps, day care, education, feeding programs in schools, tax breaks for low income families, elimination of the sales tax for the poor, decent wages for working people, unemployment insurance, immigration reform, and continue to obstruct the right to vote and union organization with respect to minorities and working people.

What is particularly vile about the these right-wing anti-children policies is that scientists have shown that living in poverty has horrible consequences for the normal development of children's brains, damages their emotional health, and results in under achievement academically.

Scientists have shown, according  to Science Daily 7-22-15, (“Poverty’s most insidious damage is to a child’s brain”) that low income children living in poverty have mental lags and  abnormal development in their frontal and temporal lobes resulting in test scores 20 per cent lower than the norm for children not living in poverty. 

We should also note that the brain has not fully developed into a mature organ in humans until the mid 20s. The result of temporal lobe damage will impair normal comprehension and understanding of speech and frontal lobe impairment  will effect normal thinking, planning,  and decision making ability, personality development and moral and ethical comprehension and behavior  among other higher mental functions.

The information in this article from SD is based on the research reported by Dr. Seth Pollak et. al., in “Poverty’s most insidious damage: The developing brain” published in JAMA Pediatrics, July 2015.  Besides this article there is an editorial  by Dr. Joan A. Luby  of the Washington University School of Medicine, who says “early childhood interventions to support a nurturing environment for these children must now become our top public health priority for the good of all.” Dr Luby’s own research has also shown that the brains of children living in poverty can be damaged causing problems for the the rest of their lives.

What can be done to help these children? Should the government guarantee a minimum income to families with children to keep them above the poverty line? Should pressure be applied to the Republicans and other rightist politicians to drop their opposition to food stamps, free meals, and other programs designed to help the poor? Should these programs get more funding so that no child is left behind in poverty? 

It seems it is the job of the parents of the children in poverty to solve this problem (providing of course they didn’t grow up in poverty themselves and suffer some of the problems discussed in this article). Dr. Luby’s studies have shown that properly nurturing parents “can offset some of the negative effects” inflicted on the brains of poor children.

“Our research has shown,” Dr.Luby writes, “that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus [part of the temporal lobe] are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children.”

This suggests that if  we teach nurturing skills to parents, especially poor parents,  then maybe the children will benefit.  This is something the fiscally responsible Republican Congress might be inclined to support. We really don’t have to make any radical social changes in the way the richest and greatest  country (or at least the 23rd such country) runs its social programs (or lack thereof) , we only have to encourage and teach better nurturing techniques to parents— this shouldn’t cost too much.

“In developmental science and medicine,” Dr. Luby wrote, “it is not often that the cause [poverty] and solution [better parenting] of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated. It is even less common that feasible and cost effective solutions [teach parents how to nurture] to such problems are discovered [maybe] and are within reach.” So cost effective that the 1% won’t even have to face a tax increase or the military a budget cut.

In closing we should consider what is happening to children all around the world. If the Numero Uno country has over 20% of its children facing permanent brain damage and life long mental disabilities as a result of childhood impoverishment  what is happening to the billions of children in the third world living in areas of armed conflict, as refugees, in countries with undeveloped and ruined economic conditions? How will future Greek children compete with their German counterparts
twenty years from now if the EU is still around?

One thing is certain. The current  dominant economic system in the world will not solve the problems of these children, and the problems of child poverty will not be cured by blaming them on poor parenting as the most loving and nurturing parents in the world cannot feed and nuture their children on words alone.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Decline of Earth's Plant Life Threatens Human Life As We Know IT

"Decline of Earth's plant life threatens human life as we know it."
Thomas Riggins

A recent scientific study comparing the role of plants in the sustainability of life on Earth and the current rapid destruction of such life has convinced many scientists that human civilization and well-being will be placed in jeopardy. Rain forests and grass lands around the world are being destroyed at an alarming rate to make room for palm oil plantations, commercial crops of no intrinsic value (tobacco), and the practices of illegal logging for the furniture and lumber trades, and industrialized agriculture.

This  has led to a massive destruction of the total biomass of the planet  all of which is fueled by the immense profits available under capitalism for the private exploitation of natural resources at the expense of sustainable use and of preservation in the interests of environmental conservation for the common good of humanity. The drive for profits is led by major private and state owned capitalist enterprises which, in addition to using the political systems they encounter in many countries to get control of the resources they intend to plunder, also resort to bribery, corruption and other illegal operations in order to attain their ends.

  Dr. John Schramski, of the University of Georgia, has recently completed (as lead author) a study of the effects of the over exploitation of Earth’s plant biomass (Science Daily 7/15/15 “Continued destruction of Earth’s plant life places humans in jeopardy”). The rich and diverse animal and plant life of today is the result of several hundred million years of evolution that began when simple one celled organisms developed  which were able to chemically change the sunlight they received into useful energy which they could metabolize.

The fact that  plants can create their own “food” from sunlight allowed animals to evolve using plants as their source of food: indirectly feeding off of the sun. Dr. Schramski used the laws of thermodynamics (the physics of heat in relation to mechanical energy) to calculate the amount of chemical energy the plant world produces and the amount that humanity is at present consuming or destroying via the reduction of forests and other plant  environments.

“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” he said. “ The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”

In the last 2000 years human activity has reduced half of the battery charge (i.e., the biomass accumulated from living carbon over the last several million years). In just the last one hundred years about ten percent of that biomass was wiped out according to the article.  This destruction means the Earth has less and less energy  to keep the food webs and “biochemical balances” going upon which we all depend.

Dr. Schramski pointed out that, “As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctions, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest.”

If humans survive this accelerated loss of biomass Dr. Schramski, and his co-authors (James H. Brown and David Gattie) predict that our species will have to abandon our current civilization and return to hunting and gathering or simple gardening (i.e., a pre-neolithic life style), as populations will crash and large-scale industrial agriculture will be impossible. [Perhaps the world population, after the die off, will be about what it was in 10,000 B.C. or so (1 to 10 million people).]

Dr. Schramski says,” I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics. These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”

The scientists are hopeful that we can take the drastic measures needed to halt this downward spiral to the paleolithic or extinction. “I call myself a realistic optimist. I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong,” Dr. Schramski said,” but I haven’t found it.”

One glance at the US Congress should give us an idea where we are headed.