Preventive Medicine: The human element of weather and health

As this Memorial Day rolls around, my neighborhood looks like a war zone.* My neighbors and I were assaulted by rogue tornadoes, very wayward in this region — but perhaps apt to become less so in a radically changing global climate. Maybe we are all in Kansas now. So it is that even as I look back with gratitude, I look around in dismay at damaged structures, blocked roads, and decimated forests.

We have long referred to the various moving parts of nature as “the elements.” In antiquity, these were catalogued as earth, wind, water, and fire. In the modern vernacular, we use the term more loosely, referring often to weather in general, but encompassing any and all expressions of the planet’s native restlessness, including tornadoes in Connecticut.

The human element has always to some extent stood apart from all the rest, with its unique capacity to reconfigure all the others, for good or for ill. We have indeed now reconfigured, albeit inadvertently, the native patterns of the “elements” at large. But there is much more to us than our capacity for exploitation. There is the nobility of purpose that marks this very holiday.

My wife, son (our only child home at the time), our dogs and I huddled in a back room of our basement level, as we saw trees take flight around our home, and come crashing down. We watched in dread as once beautiful patches of forest were torn to mangled debris, and various structures, including one of our cars, were crushed in their wind borne death throes. The scene was terrifying, horrifying, and ugly. But we then experienced all the beauty of that human element, as so many others have either in the aftermath of calamity — or the great courage of it during.

The next morning, before I made it out there myself, my neighbors were already hard at work clearing a path through our common driveway. They were not just working on their stretch of it; they were working on my stretch, too.

My son and I joined them, and it took four men, three chainsaws, and a forklift roughly five hours to cut through the elaborate series of trees crisscrossing the driveway, and tangled up in electrical wires. We then spent the day making the rounds of our cul-de-sac, working as a newly minted “team” to clear all of the driveways until we could barely lift our arms.

The contrast was vivid and jarring: our collective disregard for the long-term consequences of our actions, and our devoted actions in the service of our immediate regard for our neighbors. This, then, is our problem and opportunity, with regard to our own bodies and the body politic, the elements both small and large: our propensity for beautiful, devoted reaction, but perennial neglect of pro-action. We display little short of heroism in responding to a crisis to help one another, and little short of blinkered imbecility when provided opportunities to prevent one — whether a heart attack or stroke, a flood or fire. Such are the tribulations of my field, Preventive Medicine, where the industry dedicated to treating diseases we need never have gotten in the first place just keeps growing. Such are the tribulations of a world-straining to house and feed and furnish nearly 8 billion of our voracious kind, too.

We are increasingly subject to the calamitous vicissitudes of “the elements” that the avaricious, short-sighted, denial-inclined human element cavalierly amplifies. When assaulted by the same, the generous, luminous side of human nature — caring, courageous, compassionate — is revealed.

We have modified the elements. Can we modify the human element so that the better angels of our nature gain control before, rather than after, the next unnecessary calamity, and the next?

As we gather at our various family tables this long Memorial Day weekend, we have a poignant if periodic reminder of the willingness of one of us to sacrifice everything for all of us. Looking back to memorialize acts of sacrifice and valor does not exonerate us of looking around now, and ahead, and asking what sacrifices we should be making for the sake of those depending on us. If anything, the former demands the latter. These periodic family tables at which we gather are just the place to affirm the constancy and immutable goodness of human devotion.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. Those dual capacities — to envision, and act in the service of a better destiny — are the distinguishing features of the human element. May they prevail.