Friday, February 02, 2007


I always look forward to the Science section in every Tuesday’s NY Times. This past week was no exception, as I learned about the Japanese grass snake and its peculiar eating habits. It turns out that Rhabdophis tigrinus occasionally dines on poisonous toads in order to fill its nuchal glands with the poison from its meal and thus make itself an unappetizing target for prey. The toxins stay in the organs for about six months, then it is time for a new poisonous snack. Interestingly, on one island there are no such toads to consume and the poor snakes are defenseless, quickly slithering for cover when danger approaches.

So, even in nature toxicity spreads around. We humans are no exception. We are literally poisoning the globe, including its atmosphere, oceans and fresh water supplies. Humans also manage to spread a different kind of toxicity with their behavior. Although I maintain that niceness and goodness can spread from person to person (I feel often better after teaching a wonderful student), there is no doubt that the evil present in many of us does so with more ease. We all know poisonous people who manage to contaminate everyone around them. Often the easiest way to cope with such a human toad is to become equally toxic in our own behavior. A hostile workplace is a good example of this. Even after the initial source of poison is finally removed, it will take a long time for all the toxicity to disappear. Bad marriages cannot be salvaged. Evil behavior on a larger scale can be seen in any of our globe’s many conflicts, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Chechnya and Somalia.

In the same Science Times issue there was an article called ‘Can Humanity Survive? Want to Bet on It?’ Dr. Martin Rees, a cosmologist and the president of the Royal Society in London, gives civilization only a 50% chance of surviving until 2100. He feels that all the advances we have made and will be able to accomplish shall be undone by what he calls new global village idiots. There are a lot of pessimistic scientists around. At last our government is admitting that global warming is happening and presents a serious threat to us and everybody (duh!), but seems unwilling to go along with the Kyoto protocol. Government scientists have finally come out of the closets they were hiding in and admitted that they had been ordered to give a falsely optimistic picture of the state of our country and the world.

Personally I feel that there are far too many humans on our globe for it to support. Nature has a way of radically reducing the numbers of animals when their number increases too much. How this is going to happen with us humans remains to be seen. There are always new terrifying diseases lurking behind the corner. And the number of countries and military or terrorist organizations capable of getting their hands on nuclear or chemical weapons is growing by the day. All it takes is one or two mentally disturbed leaders to start an apocalypse. Perhaps the insanity in Iraq is a first step: at least that country’s population has been very efficiently reduced.

Last weekend I drove to beautiful British Columbia with my eldest daughter Silja. She visited a women’s prison near Maple Ridge, interviewing both staff and inmates for her upcoming book. Crossing the border used to be a breeze, especially going up to Canada. This seems no longer to be case. We were stopped and questioned by the U.S. Homeland Security even before they let us approach the Canadian officials. “Why do you want to leave the States? Why would you be writing a book about women in prison?” I wanted to say that it was none of their darn business, but managed to put on a smile and let my daughter explain. The Canadian immigration official was less friendly than I remember from numerous past visits. I think our neighbors want to start treating us the same way we treat them. Our paranoia about terrorists everywhere is already hurting our tourist industry badly: people don’t want to come here if they feel they are treated like criminals.

Canada itself shows great promise. I can’t think of another country where different ethnicities actually interact with such ease. To see a black, a Chinese, a Pakistani and a white person dining together seems perfectly normal, and mixed couples seem more the norm than an exception. In this rather small town we crossed a highway by foot, at night and in the fog, and found a little Japanese restaurant that had some of the best sushi and sashimi I’ve ever eaten. It was an unlikely discovery indeed. As far as my daughter’s prison visit went, you will have to get her book when it comes out later this year. From what I understand, guards, other staff and the inmates are on first name basis and interact like humans should; a far cry from such institutions just a hundred miles south. Perhaps they don’t have those poisonous toads up there.
Picture by Chris Gash
The New York Times