Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wealth, Slavery, And Tuberculosis

John C. Calhoun died of tuberculosis in 1850. TB was shown to be contagious in 1869, and the responsible bacterium identified in 1882. Quarantining infected people reduced the incidence of the disease, and a vaccine was first used on humans in 1921. Streptomycin, developed in 1944, and subsequent antibiotics, Isoniazid and Rifampin improved results and hastened recovery.

Calhoun said, "I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other." Six years after his death, Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. In the subsequent century and a half, fossil wealth, and the technology it allowed, more than replaced the emancipated slaves.  High quality fuels and powerful technology have fed more people, made more comfortable, and spared more from disease than Calhoun could have imagined. We can condescendingly understand his apology for slavery as coming from someone without our advantages.

And yet, at this moment of peak human wealth, some of us still live on the labor of others, people starve, and we foul our planetary nest. Frightening, when you think that we are near the limits of growth, and must soon do better with less. Absent an unprecedented technological save -- or saves -- we can expect relative impoverishment, post peak. We can't bathe in the same river twice, so slavery as Calhoun understood it probably isn't in our future, but we must anticipate that decreased wealth will tempt us, or our descendants, to thrive at each other's expense, and plan to avoid it.

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