Interview of Paul Ehrlich ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, this is Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Paul R. Ehrlich. He has been a household name since the publication of his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. He is Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus and President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Ehrlich is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Crafoord Prize (an explicit substitute for the Nobel Prize in fields of science where the latter is not given), the Blue Planet Prize, and numerous other international honors. He investigates a wide range of topics in population biology, ecology, evolution, human ecology, and environmental science. Much of his current effort is focused on the mechanisms of human cultural evolution and ways of directing that evolution to ameliorate the human predicament.

So first off, thank you for your decades of wonderful work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

PE: I’m delighted to be here. My voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, I’m afraid, but I’m still used to blabbing. I wish I could say all the effort you and I and others have put in to making more human wellbeing and a better environment for human beings – it hasn’t been too successful and in the United States right now, as you may know, we have a kakistocracy where the president and his buddies are trying to make it worse, and succeeding.

I’ll try and say something cheery, however, during this talk, and in part I can say that I think the most recent thing that I’ve been involved in, which is very embarrassing to me, actually has the potential for making a lot of people better off, at least in the short term.

DJ: So let’s talk about that. The first sentence of the introduction to your new book Jaws is “This is a story about a vast and serious epidemic afflicting the developed world increasingly over the last few centuries, one that has gone virtually unrecognized.” So what is this epidemic that you’re talking about?

PE: Let me tell you first how I learned to recognize it, because I’m very embarrassed by that. I’m basically originally an ecologist and an evolutionary biologist, and I’ve been doing a lot of work on the extinction crisis, and a lot of that work has been in collaboration with a colleague from the National University of Mexico, Gerardo Ceballos.

DJ: I’ve interviewed him. He’s great.

PE: Oh yeah, okay. He had been working with a couple who had built an eco-resort near Zihuatanejo in Mexico, and they informed an NGO that was attempting to preserve the jaguar in Mexico. Gerardo and I had been working together for years, and quite naturally, when he was visiting me once, he introduced me to Sandra Kahn and her husband David Levanthal. Sandra was born in Mexico but is a U.S. citizen and an orthodontist. And her husband is an entrepreneur who is doing the conservation and eco-resort stuff. And we discovered that we had a common interest. They live right here in the Bay area. And we discovered that we had a common interest in fermented grape juice. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried that. Fermented grape juice is sometimes called “wine” out here in California. And at a series of dinners in which we tested a lot of fermented grape juice, Sandra began telling me of her problems with orthodonture and how she was very unhappy with using the techniques she’d been trained to use, on her own kids. And that led to a discussion that basically after a couple of years led to the book Jaws. Because what I hadn’t thought about, as an evolutionary biologist and ecologist, was why people had wisdom teeth that had to be unimpacted, why they had crooked teeth to begin with, what the story was. And I gradually – I shouldn’t say it dawned on me – through Sandra’s help – saw that the basic cause was the biggest environmental change that humans have made on the planet. And that change was first settling down to practice agriculture. And then, with agriculture, being able – when one person could feed more than his or her own family – that led to specializations, so you got mechanics, and priests, and soldiers, and scientists. Led to industrialization. And the industrialization, the combination of settling down to practice agriculture and industrialization, was a huge environmental change. And that we had brought our hunter-gatherer genes into a brand new, dramatically changed environment where we’ve had nowhere near enough time to adapt genetically to it. And so we have tried to adapt environmentally and largely failed. The basic result – I’ll give you some more detail if you want it, but the basic result is our jaws have shrunk. There’s no longer room for a full row of molars, so we often get wisdom teeth that don’t have room to erupt. Teeth become crooked because there’s not enough room for them in a smaller jaw.

And another factor in this whole thing is mouth breathing, because moving indoors in the industrial age, we’ve moved to where the allergens are, including things that didn’t exist before, like formaldehyde. So kids tend to have stuffy noses for the early parts of their lives. If you stuff a monkey’s nose its jaw development goes to hell. And if you stuff a child’s nose its jaw development goes to hell, along with the fact that it doesn’t get to exercise its jaws properly. They don’t develop right. Think about it for a minute. For some reason we have separated the health of the jaws and mouth from the health of the rest of the body and invented a whole group of health care providers that are different for the jaws. They’re called “dentists” or “orthodontists,” instead of “doctors.” And you’re advised by doctors to exercise every one of your striated muscles as much as possible to remain healthy. But dentists, with some rare exceptions, don’t recommend that you exercise your jaw muscles and tongue for exactly the same reasons.

And so we’re suffering from maldevelopment of the jaws. And you say “Well, what the hell, we can still chew.” But that’s not the important point. The critical point is there isn’t room in your jaw for your tongue to lie entirely within the jaw. So when you go to sleep and sleep on your back, very often the tongue slops into your airway. And if it slops into your airway you might start doing something you’ve heard of, called “snoring.” Now, usually that doesn’t happen until you’re old enough for your muscles to lose tone, and so on. But more and more kids are beginning to snore. As far as we know, people never snored in the past. And the snoring leads to actual blocking of the airway, in the middle of the night often, a disease called “sleep apnea.” You’re awakened because you’re choking and not getting enough air. It triggers a flight or fight response, which is very dangerous to have triggered if you don’t need to fly or fight. And that leads to stress, and that, we now know, helps develop cancer, heart disease, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Depression and so on. It’s a huge health problem, and I have just discovered since we wrote the book that many friends are on C-PAP machines at night, to try to keep their airways open. And of course braces have become common on kids, and braces usually do the wrong thing, not the right thing. They’re cosmetic, but they’re not aimed at the health of the airway. And as my colleague Richard Klein, who’s the world’s best, or he and Dan Lieberman at Harvard agree, they’re the world’s best human paleontologists; neither of them has ever seen a hunter-gatherer skull with crooked teeth or with unerupted wisdom teeth. They have the normal molars.

So there is a short sermon on why we should be doing things differently if we want our kids to be healthier, and for ourselves, if you’re young enough to do something about it, to be healthier.

End of sermon.

DJ: So that seems incredibly important to me, and can we back up and make a couple linkages?

PE: Sure.

DJ: What is the problem that leads to the – so you’re saying that our jaws end up being, our faces end up being narrower?

PE: Our jaws become developed more narrowly. There’s an accompanying epidemic of hanging the mouth open. If you look at kids when they’re not playing computer games, talking or eating, they tend to hang their mouths open. If you force a monkey to hang its mouth open, its jaw doesn’t develop right. It gets very narrow. There’s not enough room for the teeth and tongue. Those experiments were done some time ago, but in the book Jaws there are pictures of the experiments done on monkeys, and lots of pictures of people suffering in various ways. For instance, if you – there’s one picture showing a grandfather who lived in a – I hate to use the term “primitive” but you know what I mean – primitive community, with a beautifully developed face and jaws. Then there’s the son who, after 20 years or so moved into a city, and you can see the jaw is starting to go to hell. And then there’s the grandson, who was raised in the city, and the jaw is much much worse. And there’s all kinds of evidence. For example, they excavated a Scandinavian graveyard of 300 years ago, measured the jaws and compared the measurements to those of modern Scandinavians, and the jaws are still shrinking. It makes sense. Think of what a kid’s legs would look like if they weren’t allowed to walk until they were ten or eleven. In other words, your genes have to interact with an environment, and they’re designed to interact with an environment that no longer exists, if they’re going to develop properly. And the point is that they were designed when people, first of all, nursed for two or three or four years, kids nursed. Then they were weaned to food they had to chew. The baby food industry is a disaster. It produces liquids and pap. We are now generally turning our entire diet liquid. Think about it. When did you last chew a fruit besides an apple? The fruits that we can buy here in Palo Alto, you can poke a hole in a peach and suck out its contents. Damn near liquid. Hamburgers are close to liquid. I had a filet the other day, which I almost could have drunk. When did you last go to a restaurant or at home, have something that you really chewed on, like your ancestors 10,000 years ago cutting a chunk off of a buffalo, roasting it over a fire, and then tearing a piece off with your teeth, maybe cutting between your mouth with a knife, just missing your nose, to cut off a piece, and then chewing on it for 20 minutes?

Between cooking utensils and forming a liquid diet, we have basically destroyed the way our jaws evolved to develop. And unfortunately, if we had a generation every 20 minutes we could have adapted to it by now, but unfortunately we have a generation every 20 years, and even if there were strong selection pressures, that has been nowhere near enough time for us to adjust genetically to this brand new, dramatically different environment.

DJ: So that I make sure that I understand what you’re saying, we don’t get the chewing exercise that our ancestors did, certainly 10,000 years ago, but even 300 years ago. We’re not getting the same sort of exercise, and that …

PE: It’s ruining our jaws and making our teeth crooked and giving us all kinds of diseases because it interrupts our sleep. Interestingly, actually I’ve been talking to people at Stanford who are looking at how Stanford students are fed, and colleagues who are interested in public health. They all basically, like me, hadn’t thought about this stuff. And one of the things Sandra and I had; Sandra Kahn is the senior author on the book, my colleague who’s an orthodontist. We’ve been unable to get a really good idea of the progression of toughness, of toughness to tenderness in food through historic time. In other words, we know – we can figure out when the meat grinder was first invented, and so on. Although there’s literature on the nutritional content of food through time, its consistency hasn’t been measured. And it’s very difficult to get the data on, for example, how much did the diet get soft as sugars were imported from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern Hemisphere, so that people began to make cakes, which were quite soft to eat? Did they replace tougher foods? And so on. It’s a whole huge area here that needs investigation.

What’s crystal clear is a combination of stuffy noses and inadequate nursing, weaning and chewing, and not holding the jaws with proper posture. Kids used to be trained, but no longer are, to keep their jaws when they’re not chewing or talking, to keep their jaws shut, teeth lightly in contact, tongue up against the front of the roof of the mouth. The gradual pressure caused by that is a main determinant of how big your jaw grows. We haven’t even done enough work on jaw development specifically, but the basic outline is very clear. Again, my two colleagues who spend their time looking at human skeletons through time have never run into an ancient skull with crooked teeth. Missing maybe, but not crooked. And no sign of so-called – wisdom teeth caused basically an epidemic that will end up with Sandra and me being sued by Lamborghini and Porsche and Lexus and so on, because those companies are supported by oral surgeons, and about 65% of wisdom tooth extractions are unnecessary and just cause misery and disease. We have an epidemic of physician-caused bad health because of the pattern of (a) not having enough room for the wisdom teeth to erupt, and then overrating the difficulty of the lack of eruption. This is National Institutes of Health data. Oh, and by the way, there are 400 references, roughly, in Jaws, so it’s a book written for parents and lay people, but virtually every statement in it is backed by references to scientific literature.

DJ: There are a couple of directions I want to go. One of them is that I just want to mention that when I was a teenager they took out my wisdom teeth, and also, before I got braces, they pulled like another three or four or five teeth.

PE: Exactly the wrong thing.

DJ: Because –

PE: I hate to tell you. I had mine – again, I’m guilty. I had my wisdom teeth removed too. And I never thought I was an adult. I never had to have braces. But I just accepted the dentist saying “You should have your wisdom teeth out.” They just spotted them in an X-ray. I don’t have any idea, if I’d left them in, whether I would have had any problem. The odds were, if I’d left them in, less than 50/50 that I’d ever have any problem.

DJ: Well, it is an extraordinary thing that we presume generally that – there is great wisdom and intelligence in time, such that sharks end up with a skin that is the right texture to enable great speed. We see this with all sorts of things, and this is something – even before I became politicized, or understood anything really, I did sort of wonder why we have wisdom teeth if everybody has them out?

PE: I’m guiltier than you are. My business is evolution, and I never thought of those issues until Sandra began to talk with me about them. Orthodontists are great people. They’re interested in helping people. They’re interested in, obviously appearance is important in our society. There’s a huge amount of data showing that the better looking you are by our social standards, the more money you make, the more likely you are to be elected, the more friends you’re likely to have, and so on. So orthodontists are trying to do the right thing, but their training is terrible and the medical profession and people like me, evolutionists, didn’t think properly about this issue. We didn’t recognize the gigantic evolutionary change that had to be culturally evolutionary, because of our huge change in the environment. If we went on for another 2000, 3000 years and people with small jaws didn’t reproduce as well as ones with larger jaws, the jaw could expand again. But we really haven’t got thousands of years to wait. We’ve got to change our environment to some degree back. For instance, Sandra and I are going to be hated by parents because we’re recommending chewing gum. In fact, Sandra’s found a gum that’s produced on an island in Greece that you can re-chew. And it’s tough to chew. It doesn’t taste bad. And we think kids ought to be encouraged to chew gum as early as possible, while you watch to make sure they don’t choke. Young kids ought to be given tough stuff to eat as soon as they’re ready to be weaned. Let them work their jaws.

To give you an example, which is semi-personal, but Sandra wouldn’t mind me telling you; she was very aware as a working mother of the nutritional value of mother’s milk. I think almost everybody is now. But as an orthodontist and a working mother, she pumped her breast milk for the day and left it with a caregiver or husband to feed their kids through a bottle. And it turns out, which she didn’t know, let alone me knowing, that nursing exercises a baby’s jaw muscles much much more than drinking a mother’s milk from a bottle.

There was a whole series of surprises for me that I find almost embarrassing to talk about, because this is one of the things that in retrospect is crystal clear.

The book is a nonprofit book. Any money that comes from it will go to; both of us have an institute trying to improve human wellbeing. And that’s where it will go. But when we started on it, we found all kinds of people saying “Yeah! I’m on a C-PAP machine.” The director of Stanford University Press has had most of the problems of things that come from things like too many extractions in the course of orthodontic treatment. One of my colleague’s wives, whom I’ve known for decades, and we’ve worked together for decades, has had her life turned to misery by sleep apnea, and trying to deal with it surgically. So this is one of those things that’s everywhere out there, but it hasn’t been put together in a systematic way before. And now that the book is out, we’re discovering things that relate to it, like moving indoors not only puts you in touch with all those allergens, but puts you in touch with a different light regime, and with your eyes not focussing in the distance so much. We’re getting an epidemic globally of nearsightedness, myopia, which can lead to retinal detachment, among other problems. So moving indoors and changing our diets to a different consistency has been a huge change, and we’ve had all kinds of reactions to it. This hasn’t been recognized and put together into a coherent story yet for humanity.

DJ: So I want to talk more about some tangible things like the chewing gum in a minute, but before then I want to read a paragraph from the preface that has to do with a lot of what you’ve been talking about.

“Human cultural evolution has been one long string of examples of the law of unexpected consequences. We invent agriculture, which leads to food surpluses, which leads to job specialization, and before you know it, we’ve invented socioeconomic status, the most crushing way of subordinating the low-ranking that primates have ever seen. We invent sedentary dwelling and permanent structures, and soon we’re dealing with the public health consequences of something no self-respecting primate would ever do, living in high density populations in close proximity to its feces. We domesticate wolves into being companions and soon we’re dressing up our dogs in Halloween costumes and buying pet rocks. The emergence of modern humans has generated some surprising twists and turns.”

So it seems that so much of your work, and you have no way of knowing this, but most of my work too, is about these sorts of unintended consequences. You attempt to invent – oh, here’s a great example. It’s a small example, but there were great concerns about horse manure in cities up until about the turn of the 20th century. There were predictions that horse manure would be piled up to the third story in Manhattan. Cities just stunk terribly. And they tried all sorts of things to fix it. They thought that trains would fix it, but trains actually made for more horses because they drove more transportation of goods into the city, which then had to be transported around the city by cart.

And then what stopped it was cars. So they solved the horse poop problem and created the car problem.

PE: And then created the climate change problem.

DJ: Exactly.

PE: How are you involved in this?

DJ: I’m a writer. I’ve got like 25 books out on environmental issues and basically trying to figure out why this culture destroys everything and how we can stop it from killing the planet.

PE: Great!

DJ: I’ll send you a book. We’ll talk about that later.

PE: Okay.

DJ: Anyway, can you talk more about these sort of unintended consequences? I mean, that’s what this whole book is about, what so much of this is about, but can you just talk about that a little bit more?

PE: You’re right. One of my big concerns and probably yours, from what you say, is how the hell we’re going to feed – we’re not doing a very good job of feeding seven and a half billion people today. The statistics show that roughly 750 million are hungry, another couple of billion micronutrient malnourished, which doesn’t let them perform very well. And yet we’re going to eleven billion or more by the end of the century. How are we going to feed them? And you talk about unintended consequences; we were all extremely worried about that situation in the mid-sixties when there was a huge famine in India and so on, and the so-called Green Revolution greatly increased production. And that seemed like an excellent, and is still bragged about today as an excellent solution. But what it led to was our crops becoming much more uniform genetically, planting huge areas in the same strain of crop, and that led to them being very vulnerable to pests, and, worse yet, losing a lot of the genetic variability that we wish we had now in order to create new strains that may be more productive, for example, in changed climates, because of course the biggest impact of climate destruction is likely to be difficulty with the agricultural system, which is already showing up.

So an unintended consequence of feeding a lot of people was to (a) make the agricultural system in general more vulnerable to climate change, (b) take the pressure off people to do something about controlling the size of the human population, and feeding the human population of course contributes about a third of climate disruption. In other words, the food system puts about a third of the greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. So all these are unintended consequences. And there are lots of others. You take any big move that humanity has made, and it’s had these unintended consequences.

I used to like tough steaks. I’m fortunate in that way, because I think they’re tastier. At least I used to think they were tastier than filet. But nowadays you can’t find a tough steak to chew in a restaurant. They won’t serve it to you. So the unintended consequence is that my jaws would be in better shape if I had stuck with tough foods. But it’s hard to do these days and in fact the trend is all going in the opposite direction.

So you’re absolutely right. Unintended consequences are essentially everywhere, and one of the things we ought to learn is to pay more attention to predicting them and trying to deal with them when we make changes.

DJ: You know, it just kills me that humans, in this culture at least, tend to consider ourselves the smartest beings on the planet. But we seem somehow surprised that if you put in a dam, it kills anadromous fish. What a surprise! Or if you intentionally make a substance, plastic, that is not food for anyone, it doesn’t decay, then it ends up accumulating.

PE: Putting itself with poisons.

DJ: Yes.

PE: Homo sapiens was a bad naming issue, but I think we have evolved very rapidly technologically, but we have not evolved to take the long term view. And I’m not sure why our cultural evolution has gone so fast with technology and so slowly with ethics and thought about the future, except that, again, we never in our evolutionary history had to pay attention to changes in the ecological background. And that’s what we have to pay attention to now.

DJ: Right.

PE: And I include in the ecological background the things we’re doing socially, like building nuclear weapons. Give me a reason why we and the Russians should have so many nuclear weapons that we could wipe out civilization ten or twenty times over. We have weapons aimed at the tiniest targets in Russia. And the whole system is on hair-trigger alert. We’ve had many close calls to blowing up the entire world. And yet there are people like Bolton who are stupid enough to not realize that we shouldn’t be risking all of civilization on today’s political disputes, particularly when, as resources get scarcer, the disputes are going to be nastier and the urge to fight likely to become even greater, when we have massive, as we’re going to have, we’ve already started; massive migratory movements. We’re not doing any planning for it.

To give just a single example: as you know, countries in Europe have faced floods of refugees from Syria, from Africa and so on, all of which are likely to get much worse. And yet they’ve done no planning for how to handle them and how to share the costs. That is, if the huge expansion of population in Africa leads to huge numbers of people invading, moving to Spain and Italy. What share in taking care of that problem should the British and the Germans or Swedes contribute? In other words, there’s no set of treaties or anything. You can try and deal with that problem, which is a super obvious one that Europe is going to face over the next few decades. We’re not good at that kind of thing.

DJ: Yeah. One of the thing I loved about Jaws is that it is such a great example of, you know we can talk about the larger scale unintended consequences like the anadromous fish, like the plastic, like any of the ones you mentioned. And one of the things I love about Jaws is it brings it back to; how much more intimate can it be than the shape of your face, and your health?

PE: What I like about it, and why I got so deeply involved, as you can tell, is when you think about the anadromous fish, the problems with the Green Revolution and all that, there’s not much you can do. Do you have children?

DJ: No.

PE: Well, if you have kids, there’s not much you can do to protect them from climate change, or the loss of the fish species, or fish populations, and so on. This is something you can actually have direct influence on how it hits you, your family, your loved ones, other people. Most of the people I work with are concerned now, mostly at the planning and consideration level, with if there’s enough left after the coming collapse, how do you redesign a system that won’t just lead to another collapse? That’s ten thousand foot level stuff. But the jaws thing is something that you can work on right with your own family and actually help people. And that’s unusual in the kinds of things you and I are interested in. Unintended consequences elsewhere usually require political action and group activities. There’s not much you can do individually to affect the climate situation except watch your footprint as closely as you can.

DJ: So one of the things that blew me away in the book was the before-and-after pictures. First there were the before-and-after pictures that you talked about before, where you look at generations and you see the jaws recede terribly. You see the jaws recede a stunning amount. But then the other thing I found extraordinary was you see some of the pictures of some of the individuals who have been able to at the very least mitigate some of the problems and to sort of restructure their faces

PE: Sandra has a whole series of exercises and so on, other things that people can do to actually change the results. And also impressive are the ones, one of the ones, I don’t know if you noticed it, this kid who had perfectly normal jaw development and then got a gerbil as a pet, that he was allergic to. Ended up with long-term stuffy nose and his jaw went to hell, and they’ve got the pictures to show it. If you pay attention, if you look for the symptoms, and we have a chart, a list of things to look for in very young children to give you a clue about how they’re doing, and then take action; you can spare a lot of trouble, a lot of misery, and get really good results. You ought to talk to Sandra sometime, because that of course is her department, at the very least.

DJ: Well, (a) I would like to do that, and (b) so in the meantime, can you go through a few of those symptoms for people to look at, and then go through some of the individual solutions?

My gosh, that’s so funny, with me talking to you, both of us being really big picture people and saying the words “individual solutions.” But let’s just let that slide.

PE: One of the things to look for – again, there’s a long list in the book. But kids should sleep, young kids, should sleep quietly. You shouldn’t be able to hear them breathing. Their mouths ought to be closed. The bedcovers shouldn’t be all messed up as if they’ve been squirming around. They should just go to sleep. They should wake up energized, ready to play and so on. You want to watch for any signs of sleeplessness.

If they smile and you see a lot of gum – there are some pictures of that – a gummy smile is a bad sign. Downward growth of the face instead of forward growth is a bad sign. And again, there are lots of pictures so you can detect these things. You don’t have to wait until – one of the problems with orthodonture in general is a lot of them say “Wait until all the permanent teeth are in and then we’ll fix them.” Well, fixing them consists of moving them around, maybe removing some, maybe making the airway even smaller. You can start when your child is just beginning to nurse, to watch for the signs. Then the cures are more difficult than standard orthodonture, because standard orthodonture is just an issue of moving the teeth around and then putting in a retainer to keep them where they were, in other words where you want them. Because otherwise they’ll just continue to move around. Teeth move through bone very nicely.

Then there’s a series of exercises, sometimes with an appliance, not a brace exactly but an appliance that makes you keep your mouth shut in the right posture. And the advantage of orthodonture for cosmetic reasons is you pay your money, you get the braces, you don’t have to do anything. You can use Invisalign, which is, you don’t even have to go to a dentist to do it. But it’s temporary and it doesn’t work on the airway. The problem with the airway, keeping the airway open requires a lot of exercise and contribution from the patient him or herself. The kids have to learn to count shutting their mouths, there’s a whole series of exercises that kids can do that will give them the proper posture, and will end up then with a big jaw where you don’t have to move the teeth around because they’ll all have room. There won’t be any problem with the wisdom teeth erupting and so on.

So the downside of the present cure is that it requires attention on the part of children and of parents, and it’s fairly longterm to get the best results. If you just want a cosmetic cure, and don’t care whether your kid ends up barely able to breathe and gets a cardiovascular disease when he or she’s in her 40’s or 50’s, then you just use the cosmetic treatment of the orthodontists and leave the retainer in so you look good. And you’ll look good in your coffin, too. So there’s a positive thing there.

DJ: Can you make the connection explicit for us between the restriction of the airway passage, I presume you’re talking about in the mouth and upper throat then –

PE: Right. Your airway is what normally goes from your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs. If it becomes mouth into the lungs, then you’re in trouble. Mouth breathing – first of all, the nose evolved not just to be a passageway for air, but to filter crap out of the air, warm the air, moisten the air, add antibacterial, that is, antiseptic substances to the air, so it’s a very valuable thing to breathe through your nose. And nose breathing; a big feature of the book is how to get people to make sure they’re breathing through their noses, not through their mouths. And the problem with most orthodonture is it tends to shorten the jaw, move the jaws back. The upper jaw may seem to you just the base of your skull, but it’s actually also moveable, the so-called maxilla, the upper jaw and the mandible have to work together. They have to know how to develop properly so the jaw and the teeth meet properly. And that means for much of the time when you’re not eating or talking, as a child, you should have your teeth in contact. Otherwise they don’t grow properly.

Did I answer your question or did I just rave on?

DJ: No, that was great. That was very important. And then the question is can you make the link between a restricted air passage and various unexpected health problems? How does restricting the air passage –

PE: Yeah. The link is uncertain at one point, at one level. And that is; obviously the thing you have to do and the thing that you panic immediately if you can’t, is get air into your lungs, and the air has to go down the airway, which is, in part, your throat. So if you block your airway, if you reduce the airway, then you’re in deep trouble. For example, if it happens with your tongue slopping back into your throat when you’re an obese man of 50 sleeping on your back, you’re awakened by choking. And that triggers what’s called your sympathetic nervous system, which is the system that’s normally triggered by danger. It’s the fight or flight reaction and it shuts off part of your physiology and turns on other parts of it, and it is very stressful, particularly if one of the problems in our society is too much stress. There’s a book by Robert Sapolsky, who wrote the introduction to our book; called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” if you’re interested in the stress-to-health connection. And there’s another book by a guy named Walker called “Why We Sleep,” which connects the stress-sleep-health connection, which is another big one.

So what we don’t know is: if you’re awakened every night in the middle of the night by sleep apnea, and you only get five hours of sleep at night, and your sympathetic nervous system is turned on for two hours a night; what does that do to the odds of your getting cancer? What we do know is that it increases them. It hasn’t been possible, it isn’t possible, really, to do the experiments that if that happens to you what are the odds of your getting cancer, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, any number of – Alzheimer’s disease, depression and so on.

What’s clear is choking is bad and stressful. What’s also clear is stress is bad for you in many, many ways, and, again, read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. But the exact consequences, whether you’re going to get cancer – it’s just like we know from all kinds of stuff that smoking is bad for you. But some people smoke until they’re 90 and die from being hit by a truck. Other people get a Type II lung cancer from somebody else smoking in their vicinity. In other words, these things are probabilistic, they depend on the individual. They depend on a lot of things we can’t make the connection to. But in the same sense that in my view, and I did smoke when I was a kid, that smoking is bad for you, having a restricted airway is bad for you in the same sense.

I often get amused by these people who say they got lung cancer and didn’t realize smoking was bad for them. I was picking up butts on the street in the 1930’s with my friends, and smoking them, when I was seven or eight years old. You know what we called them? We called them “coffin nails.” Even at seven or eight years old you knew perfectly well it wasn’t going to be good for you to pull hot air and a lot of crap into your lungs.

DJ: So before we wind this whole thing down, there’s another thing that your book helped me understand, that’s something that’s puzzled me for a long time too, which is it seemed like snoring is a tremendously bad idea evolutionarily, in that you’re announcing to the world that you’re asleep and defenseless.

PE: That’s one of our examples in the book. We try and be very careful about the science and what’s behind various statements, besides having all the documentation from the scientific literature. That’s one that’s purely speculation. I tried to find out whether people who’d worked with the Bushmen, for example, knew whether they snored at all, at least before they adapted to more city-like life. And I couldn’t find out. But just on pure speculation, we know, for example, that our Australopithecine ancestors lived in African savannas and were hunted by leopards. And if I were living outdoors in an area where there were leopards, I don’t think that snoring would be a really good idea.

I hope somebody someday digs up some literature or actually does some interviewing or something to find out whether hunter-gatherers, and there are very few of them left, ever snore. But my suspicion is (a) they weren’t, they didn’t have the kind of diet and jaw development that would lead to snoring, and that those who did snore would be selected against, shall we say? They’d have to worry about being dined on by leopards, and I think human flesh was probably quite good for leopards.

DJ: On that note: we have just a couple of minutes left, and what, on both the macro and micro scales, what do you want people to take away from both this interview and also the book itself?

PE: Well, first: learn for your own benefit and for your kids’ benefit, but also try and push the idea that right or wrong, we ought to be paying attention to the consistency of what we eat, how we hold our mouths, the problems with sleep apnea and so on, so that among other things, we need our medical schools and dental schools to cooperate more and maybe even fuse. There’s no reason to separate the health of your mouth and your teeth and your jaws from the health of your legs or your gall bladder or anything else. It’s really a single unit designed to develop in a certain environment. What we’re learning is we’re not paying the right kind of attention to the big environmental changes that affect us directly, as opposed to the very important ones that affect the rest of our environment, like toxification and climate change and loss of biodiversity. This is one we can do something about, and we should put some pressure on schools, to watch the diets that they feed kids in the middle of the day, and for consistency, try and fight against, get the baby food industry to make non-liquid baby foods, so the kids can actually chew. There are a lot of social things we can all do, that are obvious once you understand the situation. And hopefully – it’s not a long book. It’s a fairly obvious story. So, absorb it. Help your kids, help yourself, and then try and help your society to make the situation better.

DJ: Well, thank you so much for all that, and thank you for all your work. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Paul Ehrlich. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on July 1st — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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