Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. By Stan Cox. Pluto Press. 2008.
In Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer quipped that “every new medicine creates a new disease.” Before penicillin there was no penicillin shock; radiation treatments birthed radiation sickness; thalidomide gave us a generation of hideously deformed babies. And on and on. Mailer meant it as a caustic critique of a society entranced by the dark promise of technology. But now Mailer’s warning has become a marketing strategy for the medical industry, the last growth sector of the American economy. One study estimates that nearly one-third of all health care spending goes to treat side-effects from treatments.
Cannibals and Christians was published in the mid-1960s, when most adult Americans smoked and consumed artery-clogging meals with no regrets. But over the last 40 years, even as our society has become increasing medicalized, the populace has become less and less healthy. We are fatter, more sluggish, more dependent on prescribed drugs to make it through the workday. At a time when more than half of the population of the planet is suffering from malnourishment, more than two-thirds of Americans are considered obese.
America has steadily become a nation of hypochondriacs, filling the voids of contemporary life with prescribed drugs for imaginary illnesses. With direct market of prescribed drugs, the pharmaceutical companies are literally manufacturing diseases, such as restless leg syndrome, attention deficit disorder and sexual dysfunction. There’s billions to be made in disease mongering, and the medical establishment, from Eli Lilly to the country doctor, is quite willing to play along. The drug industry knows how to prime the pump. They keep personality profiles on nearly doctor in the country, charting their prescription writing habits. They target the “heavy hitters” with new drugs, pay them to prescribe “free samples,” reward the script-happy docs with trips to the Bahamas.
The high-tech machinery of the medical industry is designed for early detection of diseases, but these costly technologies are just as likely to force patients into treatments, biopsies and surgeries for non-existent conditions. One study suggests that between 30 and 40 percent of CAT scans and urinalysis exams are unnecessary, leading to unnecessary biopsies and other invasive, and dangerous, procedures.
If you don’t have a disease when you enter the hospital, you just might before you check out—that is if you check out. Hospitals are some of the most dangerous places in America. Each year two million Americans contract infections inside hospitals, resulting in more than 90,000 deaths. But it’s not just the patients who are at risk. Hospitals generate huge amounts of toxic waste. A typical hospital bed produces up to 45 pounds of waste each day and that’s not counting the toxic and radioactive waste, slushed into sewers or belched into the air from medical waste incinerators.
Pill-popping has its ecological consequences as well. Increasingly, drug production has moved to the developing world, where entire valleys are clotted with drug factories in “special economic zones.” India, for example, has become a top producer of generic and so-called bulk drugs. But these factory zones are some of the dangerously polluted places on the planet. In Sick Planet, Stan Cox visits the Nakkavagu Basin in Andrha Pradesh, where he memorably describes a lake having “the color of Cabernet Sauvignon and the aroma of paint thinner.”
The human consequences of this pollution are dire. Thousands of Indians are getting seriously sick from living near the drug factories that are producing pharmaceuticals meant to cure the ailments of the Western World. Cancer rates, birth defects and heart disease in the drug-producing zones are significantly higher, and rising. Meanwhile, other Indian citizens are being used as unwitting test subjects for new drugs.
Cox’s revelatory book is a Silent Spring for the 21st century. He skillfully charts the intersections between the medical industry and the chemical agriculture industry, and the ruinous ecological consequences of this lethal alliance. There are villains aplenty in this compact book, but they are merely fangs in a rampaging global economic machine that is steadily devouring the life-forms of the earth in the pursuit of the bottom line.
White Crosses. By Larry Watson. Pocket Books. 1997.
It’s 1957 and graduation night in Bentrock, out on the Great Plains of eastern Montana. Sheriff Jack Nevelsen’s dinner is interrupted by an emergency call. There’s been a fatal wreck on a farm road outside of town. When the sheriff arrives on the scene, he finds that the victims are a 17 year-old girl, newly graduated from high school, and the high school’s 50-year old principal, an old friend of the sheriff’s and something of hero to the good citizens of Bentrock. The trunk of the mangled car is filled with luggage, indicating two were fleeing the small town together. Nevelsen makes the decision to cover-up the circumstances of the crash. In order to protect the reputation of his friend, he concocts a story that will soon cast distant and deadly reverberations through this small, uptight town. Larry Watson is the O. Henry of the Great Plains. His prose is stark and lean, clear as a Montana morning. White Crosses is a slow-building story of longing, isolation and sexual obsession in the remote heartland of America that careens toward a dark but inevitable denouement.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. By Paula Wolfert. Wiley. 2004.
Last week I spent a few hours preparing a dinner out of Paula Wolfert’s slow food book: couscous, stuffed eggplants with yogurt and a red bean and hot pepper soup from Dagestan, of all places. Our daughter, up from San Francisco, seemed satisfied. “This slow food’s not bad,” Zen said. “But does it have to take so long?” Precisely. Slow food isn’t for everyone. You must enjoy the ordeal of cooking, of chopping vegetables, simmering stock and sauces, wasting away the afternoon in the aroma of garlic, ginger and tamarmind. A bottle of Viognier helps ease the hours along. But if you are into this kind of mopery there’s no better guide to consult than Ms. Wolfert, who is the most evocative food writer since Elizabeth David. For decades, Wolfert has studied the foods of the Mediterranean, from Aleppo to Marseilles, a region where recipes have been traded for 2,500 years. As in all of Wolfert’s books, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen is as much a passionate history of meals and their preparation as it is a collection of authentic and concisely described recipes. Try the Adzharian-style Green Beans with Cinnamon-flavored Yogurt Sauce along with a filet of Halibut poached in Morel Sauce. It may take three or four hours of meticulous conjuring, but it won’t sit around long on the table. Of course, if you want to cook even slower you can down-shift to Indian cuisine. Try to find Cooking at Home with Pedatha: Vegetarian Recipes from a Traditional Andhra Kitchen. Be sure to block off a couple days to get those sauces just right….
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published this spring. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.