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The Threat of Pandemics (MLA13 Boston: Plenary 4: Laurie Garrett)

A woman dressed in black standing at a podium in front of a white lighted circle stating One Health.

Laurie Garrett giving her presentation.

The final plenary, and indeed, the final non-CE class or tour event of MLA13 Boston, was on my list of events to blog for the official conference blog.  I summed up the entire presentation.  As stated previously, I can’t reproduce those posts here on my personal blog, so please go over and take a look at that summary before reading my responses to and thoughts on the presentation.

Got it? Good!

Ok, so, what was my reaction to this lecture?  Well, first, honestly I had a bit of a panic.  I felt frightened, unsafe, and like the world is doomed.  At first I thought that was just my anxious-prone self over-reacting to the presentation, but after discussing it with friends and colleagues who were also there, I realized that Garrett seems to have actually sought to pull out this fear in people.

Why?

In a presentation that ends with pleas for us to fight fear and panic, why did she spend so much time investing in frightening us and very little (if any) spent in reassuring us?  Why focus so much on pandemics just a single mistake away, germ warfare close at hand (although, not really since 3D printing of germs isn’t happening yet).  I don’t know.  I don’t know what would make Garrett think making people feel this way is a good thing.  Maybe she’s fallen prey to the idea that the only way to get people to pay attention to your cause is to frighten them.  I know people in various movements who use that tactic.  It’s not one I’m a fan of.  Maybe she didn’t intend to gloom and doom the people present.  But I think she did.  Given that her own speech pointed out the dangers of panic and unwarranted fear, I find it odd that this was her intent.  And yet there you have it.  A room full of frightened librarians.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Check out just a few of the tweets from during her presentation:

Screen shot of a tweet "Nothing like wrapping up a conference with a presentation that will haunt attendee dreams..."One Health? Garrett's doom-scenario suggests we're on course for One Ill-HealthLaurie Garrett is scaring us all to death about pandemics and biosynthesis and germs etc...@Laurie_Garrett is one of the best speakers I've seen in a long time.  Also one of the scariest.YES! RT @mandosally I'm feeling creeped out. Anyone else?I think I'm going to use a 3D printer to make a bubble house and never leave it...Everyone has their own style, and I certainly learned a lot from the presentation and wasn’t bored.  But.  I’m not a fan of nonfiction presentations (aka not horror plays or movies) inciting fear and panic in the audience.  I think it’s counter-productive when talking to a room full of intelligent, educated individuals.  Librarians aren’t 5 year olds who need to be told about icky germs in order to get us to wash our hands.  I’m sure there could have been a way to give this presentation with truths and realities that could be frightening without actually inciting this level of anxiety.  Even just a little positivity and more hope for the future would have been nice.  You don’t want a populace that is exerting all their energy preparing for Armageddon.

I should also mention that I stood up to ask a question of Garrett at the end.  With all the talk of synthetic biology, I wanted to know what her opinion was on GMOs.  I admit, this is not an issue I am yet clear-cut on myself.  I generally prefer organic, but I also understand the value of say rice that has been modified to have more vitamins in it for an at-risk population.  But on the other hand I get the concern of manipulating something at a genetic level and what that might do to our own bodies when we ingest it.  It’s something that just doesn’t have enough long-term studies yet to really show if it’s truly safe or not, and it concerns me that it’s mostly the poor, at-risk populations who are being used as guinea pigs eating it.

In any case, I asked Garrett at the public microphone about her stance on GMO foods and the movement to label them.  Given all of her doom and gloom talk about synthetic viruses, I was shocked at her answer.  She believes that GMO foods are necessary because as more of the world becomes middle class, more of the world is eating meat, and meat eating just cannot be sustained on the land we currently have available, so we must turn to eating synthetic foods.

Um, EXCUSE ME?!?!

So the lady who just spent over an hour and a half talking about how dangerous synthetic biology could turn out to be turns right around and says that meat eating isn’t sustainable to feed the entire globe (which it isn’t, see this article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) turns right around and says that well we have to eat GMOs to feed everyone because people won’t just give up meat.  Right, ok, if someone is so concerned about the possible bad consequences of synthetic biology don’t you think she might possibly take this opportunity to espouse a vegetarian, vegan, or even just more plant-based diet to combat the global food crisis instead of relying exclusively on GMOs?  Apparently not.  Apparently it’s really great to fear-monger about pandemics and international relations but when it comes to what we eat, the basis of much of our health, that’s too controversial.

Well, at least it was an interesting final couple of hours of MLA13, although I can’t say I really feel that it was very useful to librarians or working to promote true global health.

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Woman's body mirror imaged.Summary:
Snowman used to be Jimmy.  Jimmy was a word person in a science person world.  He couldn’t splice genes to make rakunks or even to make new types of plants.  He could sell them to the public who lived outside of the safe Compounds though.  Jimmy was with Oryx, although he had to share her with Crake.  Now, Snowman must take care of the Crakers with their rainbow of colors, naturally insect-repellant skin, and complex mating rituals.  Snowman is alone except for the Crakers.  Everyone else died in the bloody pandemic. Or did they?

Review:
This is a companion novel to Year of the Flood (review), although Oryx and Crake was published first.  Companion novel means they’re set in the same time-span in the same universe and some characters may briefly cross over, but you don’t necessarily need to read them in a particular order or even read all of them.

Atwood is one of my favorite authors, so I have no idea how to react to the fact that I didn’t like this book.  I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it.  It was a bit of a struggle to get through.  As usual, Atwood sets scenes beautifully, but I felt no emotion driving the story.  I believe Oryx and Crake suffers from the fact that love triangle of Oryx, Crake, and Jimmy is only hinted at throughout the book, only to be revealed in such a manner that it rings false.  Jimmy seems to surf through life on a wave of ennui, until Oryx shows up and cheers him up, but how does she do it?  We just don’t ever really find out, because our narrator is Snowman–the version of Jimmy who’s lost his mind.  Perhaps Atwood was trying to show a culture that had reached a point where people just couldn’t be truly happy.  That’s a good thing to show, but it makes for a boring narrator.

What I really wanted to know about was what made Crake do the things he did.  He’s clearly either a mad-man or a genius, but we never get to find out much about him at all.  I wish he had been the narrator.  To see inside his mind would have been amazing.  I could have even overlooked the fact that he’s not a woman.

That’s the other thing that bugged me about this book.  Atwood usually writes with female main characters, but in this instance, men were the main players.  That kind of pisses me off.  Was she unable to imagine a woman doing something so evil?  A woman being so stupid?  That’s just as sexist as women never being the hero.  I would have enjoyed the book so much more if Jimmy and Crake were women (heck, Oryx could have stayed a woman too.  That would have been an interesting change).

When you compare this to Year of the Flood, it’s evident that what Oryx and Crake lacks is the emotions driving the bigger picture.  It’s a well-imagined and creative big picture, which is what makes the book still readable.  I’m sure some people would like it, but don’t come into it expecting Atwood’s more typical emotion-driven story.  You won’t find it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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