In 1992, Arizona had a proposition banning leg hold traps, a particularly cruel way to hunt animals.  Unfortunately, a few decided to add some hunting restrictions to the proposition, and it was defeated.  Two years later, the same proposition, sans hunting restrictions, passed easily.  The purists caused two additional years of leg hold traps in Arizona.  They as well as the trappers were to blame for the pain of the animals.

In 2000, purists thought that Al Gore and George Bush were both bad choices.  They backed Ralph Nader, who had about as much chance of winning as a foot of snow has of occurring  in Tucson in mid-June.  We know how that turned out.  Florida may or may not have been stolen.  Without Nader, Gore would have won the state without any question.  The purists stayed pure, and they, as well as the Republican supporters, are responsible for George W. Bush. I don’t know whether the 9/11 attacks would have occurred; Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State, ignored the warnings, yet few commented on that when Susan Rice, another black woman, was blamed for the 4 deaths in Libya.  In any case, I doubt we ever would have gone to war with Iraq, and as a result, more innocent people would be alive today, we’d have less debt, and Iran would not be so strong as it is.

In 1996, I did a quality improvement project in my hospital as part of my course work for Intermountain Health Care’s Advanced Training Program for Quality Improvement.  With a small team, we decreased time from ordering antibiotics to giving them to patients in the emergency room 80%, in statistical control.  This can save lives and reduce time in hospital.  It cost no money to implement.  I presented my project, the only one completely completed, and there were 30 taking the course.

“Did they give the right antibiotic?”  was asked by many.  I replied that the right antibiotic  was not the pertinent question, only the timeliness.  “Well, the type of antibiotic matters,” I heard,  this time becoming annoyed, replying that if I tried to ensure the right antibiotic and the timeliness, the study would have failed.  It was difficult enough to improve timeliness.  My critics were purists, and they can be dangerous people, for they prevent incremental improvement.

I can deal somewhat with the right wing, because I know immediately that they disagree with me.   Purists, however, are more insidious.  While they agree with my basic premise, they cannot tolerate an imperfect world, so they are able to block progress, and I often forget to watch for the danger.

In 2010, I decided to help clear buffelgrass from southern Arizona.  Buffelgrass was brought to Mexico as cattle forage from Africa.  Unfortunately, it spreads by burning, and it burns hot, too hot for native desert plants to survive.  I “adopted” an 8 acre wash (arroyo, dry stream bed), and in the next eight months, removed 20,000 plants, by digging them up, putting them in a large bag, and throwing the bag about 4 meters up a cement berm.  Each plant could be a meter tall with a base of about 30-50 cm. in diameter.  It was difficult work; I had to battle the occasional rattlesnake, heat, and fatigue.  I got a parking ticket for my labors. Part of a grass stem went in my nose, leading to a nasty infection that required antibiotics.  I filled more than 1500 bags.

Because I was throwing the bags, which was the only possible way to move them out of the wash, one of the dispatchers said seeds were falling out.  That annoyed me.  Seeds were going to fall simply by manipulating the plant, and if they did not like my work, they were free to come and help.  They didn’t, nor did a group that had “adopted the wash,” help.  That group was “fluff,” another annoyance.  Fluff is doing “feel good” things that don’t fix problems.  It is important to do things to feel better after a tragedy, but it is far more important to prevent future tragedies.  A memorial by the side of a road where a person died in a motor vehicle accident may make the living feel better, but where is the outcry for legislation for mandatory seat belt laws, requiring teenagers to be alone or with an adult if there is more than one teen in the car, and publishing monthly counts of deaths, so as to keep the issue in the public eye?  Fluff is cutsy commercials telling people that exercise is fun, rather than publishing numbers showing that the median Body Mass Index in 1100 local 6th graders was at the 89th percentile, 7% were over the 99th percentile, and we should screen every 6th grader in the county to determine the scope of the problem, which we never did, despite its being possible with virtually no cost.  I did all that in 2010.  Without knowing the baseline, you cannot determine whether there was any improvement.

In any case, four months after I cleared the wash, the buffelgrass had grown back, because I had failed to monitor the area.  I made a comment to the Sierra Club  chapter, to which I belong, that we needed to spray poison on the plants, only to hear that spraying was bad, and we mustn’t do it.  The next–and last–time I cleared buffelgrass was in the same area where I had first cleaned it a year earlier, with a group of 7.  Unless Tucson has several thousand people clearing buffelgrass, it will be impossible to eradicate without poison.  We will be pure, we won’t spray, but we will lose the battle.

NASA’s James Hansen is one of the leading scientists dealing with climate change, for decades speaking out on the issue.  Virtually all of his predictions have come true.  Without going into great detail about the science, Hansen’s key point is that we need to stop burning coal, period, and use breeder nuclear reactors, to buy time.  Is he concerned about their safety?  Certainly.  But he sees no other viable alternative to keeping the [CO2] from rising to 450 ppm, and indeed, he now believes that 350 ppm is required.  By climatic evidence, I mean that [CO2] has correlated strongly with sea level, and that a level of 450 ppm (we are at about 391 now), correlates with a rise that would flood many major coastal cities, including the US, which might get our attention.  I am ignoring acidity, coal dust causing earlier snow melts, and stronger storms from a warming ocean, since cyclonic storms (anticyclonic south of the equator) exist to shift warm air to colder regions, trying to keep the Earth’s heat balance.  Such storms must exist.

The Sierra Club is so pure on this issue, that even as a Life Member, I don’t bring it up.  But the reality is that we are not going to get out of our difficulty by conservation, Copenhagen conferences, Kyoto accords, or with renewables.  It’s nice to think, but conferences are fluff, and the rest is magical thinking.  Perhaps we can develop a solar powered way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and a solar powered way to pressurize it into tanks and put the tanks somewhere safe, but I am not counting on that occurring.  Reactors have a lot of problems; we know that. but they are potential, not certain; whereas continuing to burn coal is a 100% problem.

I think that incremental health care reform might have worked, rather than what happened in 1993 and again in 2010.  We could have tried to expand Medicare to pregnant women and children under 5 or 10.  It might not have passed, but those not voting for it would have been on record as voting against the health of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.  Fixing health care reform means going against the ideologues on the right, many of whom are military retirees whose health care is ironically taken care of by the government, and the purists on the left, who want a national system.

Would I like a national system?  Yes.  Is there a chance we will have one any time soon?  No.

The perfect truly is the enemy of the good, until the purists learn that small, incremental steps in the right direction are better than no progress at all.


One Response to “PURISTS”

  1. Alex Jones Says:

    It is likely not the purist but the system itself that undermines the creativity and energy of people like yourself. Working within a corrupted system has the two fold problem of creating burnout and disillusion. Better to work outside of the system where you have the authority to change things, setting an example by which others follow.

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