Humanity flunks the marshmallow test

“Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.” 
-William S. Burroughs

In 1972, Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted the famous marshmallow test to measure four-year-old children’s ability to delay gratification. The deal was that children had to resist eating a marshmallow for a few minutes while no one else was in the room, then they would be given two marshmallows. Predictably, many of the children couldn’t hold out, but those who did were found in follow-up studies to be higher achievers in academics and careers.
Philip Zimbardo has spoken about this and other psychology experiments in a series of TED talks, and he adds the caveat that one can lean too much toward a focus on future payoffs. He says, “… the optimal temporal mix is what you get from the past -- past-positive gives you roots. You connect your family, identity and yourself. What you get from the future is wings to soar to new destinations, new challenges. What you get from the present hedonism is the energy, the energy to explore yourself, places, people, sensuality.”
This balance is difficult enough for individuals to achieve, but the question I raise here is how the human race is to collectively find such balance. As it is now, with serious people declaring that we can solve global warming by having more nuclear energy, they have decided to be like a heroin addict who switches to crystal meth during a supply crisis.
No one ever stops to think about what future generations might want. This involves not only our desire for cheap energy now, but it is also seen in our attitude to cancer. We know what’s causing it, but when it appears close to us, all we want is the cure.
Imagine that tomorrow all the cancer therapy were gone. Perhaps governments just wanted to devote their resources to education and vaccinations and dental care for the poor. No radiation treatment, no chemotherapy, no surgery, no MRIs and other fancy diagnostic tools. A small percentage of the population, most of whom had already lived a few decades, would just have to quietly leave the stage so that others could have a good life. Of course, if this were to happen, there would be massive, instant protests, and in fact, every politician knows cancer treatment is too sacred to even question like this. Even if cutbacks in health care do occur, politicians never spin them as reductions in cancer treatment. This is because we are present-focused. When we were healthy we let governments and corporations fill up the world with carcinogens and other toxins, but when we ourselves or our loved ones are sick, we want the cure and we want it now. But for every day of our healthy lives we accept that industrial pollution and nuclear accidents will, inevitably, cause thousands of cancers and diseases at some time in the future, hopefully to no one we know. This death and suffering is acceptable, while the abandonment of present cancer patients is unthinkable.
And so the war on cancer is completely focused on treatment and research to find the cure, a cure which, if it exists, will be available to only a minority of the world’s population. We wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research and grow mustaches for prostate cancer research, and every corporation hops on the bandwagon by promising to support the cause if you just buy their brand (for more on this see the trailer for the documentary Pink Ribbons).
My favorite example of this excessive sentimentalizing of cancer can be found in the beautiful parkland of Toronto’s Don Valley. In a spot just behind the Ontario Science Centre one can now find Lung Cancer Canada Grove, which is a plaque with a bas-relief of two lungs, surrounded by saplings. Nowadays, as you enjoy nature, you didn’t ask for it, but you are expected to pause for a moment to mourn for the fallen soldiers in the war on cancer.
And yes, I get it. It’s sad. We’ve all lost people to cancer, and most of us will die of it, but my point is, while we’re all jogging and swimming and cycling for the cure, we look kind of dumb for not stopping to ask why this is happening. If you really want to honor the memory of those who have died, think less about the cure and do something to eliminate the root causes.
We’ve been led to believe that cancer is natural and unavoidable. Rare mutations occur, it’s part of the natural process of aging and dying. In any case, we die of cancer in our later years because now we live longer thanks to medical science’s vanquishing of other diseases. However, this is only partly true. This argument can’t account for the increase in childhood cancer and the increasing rate of cancer in otherwise healthy adults, not to mention the shocking rise in so many other diseases. The fifty-year-old in 2012 who hasn’t died of infectious disease or accident is exactly the same as the fifty-year-old in 1912 who hadn’t died of infectious disease or accident, except the former is more likely to have pancreatic cancer at this age.
In the 1950s, when atmospheric thermonuclear testing was in full swing, some scientists predicted an increase in cancer would hit the Northern Hemisphere in the 1970s, and sure enough it appeared (see Childhood Cancers by the US National Cancer Institute). Just as this fallout was decaying away to less harmful levels, the fallout from Chernobyl went around the world in 1986.
During the period of bomb testing, one researcher in Missouri had the foresight to collect thousands of baby teeth, and he tracked strontium 90 levels in the teeth to health outcomes forty years later. The persons more exposed to bomb fallout had worse health, and cancer was not the only noticeable health effect.
There is evidence but no perfect proof of a causal link between cancer and radioactive fallout, and doubters will never be convinced, as its effects have been mixed with the effects of environmental chemical pollution. Furthermore, people smoke, drink, eat junk food, and live sedentary lives. Then, when they become unwell, they get x-rays and CAT scans, and consume pharmaceuticals that contribute to a new health a problem while fixing another. So it is not only the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, but also Dupont Chemical and the nuclear divisions of Toshiba and General Electric that would like to say, “Thank you for smoking.”
The fetal origins hypothesis was originally focused on the effects of poor nutrition in utero, but now many researchers look at the effects of toxins on fetuses and how these exposures condemn an individual to poor health in adulthood. Toxicity can no longer be understood by just the effects of chemicals on adults. The really destructive impact on health has been the exposure of millions of people in utero. A fetus is much more sensitive to toxic chemicals and radiation, and exposure during early development is irreversible. Even the eggs inside the fetus (thus the mother’s grandchildren) can be affected.
Cancer is not the only disease caused by fetal poisoning. Every physiological system is affected, and the outcomes are plain to see. This is not some future nightmare. The nightmare happened, and we are living with the results: more allergies and asthma, more liver and kidney failure, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, autism, attention deficit, depression, infertility, cardiovascular diseases and immune disorders. All of these have been traced to fetal exposure to toxins. Other factors are involved, but a lot of people were inactive over-eaters in the past too. In the 1960s when I was a child, everyone watched hours of television every day, ate lots of candy and drank gallons of soft drinks, but childhood obesity was pretty rare. Something else is needed to explain why the incidences of these diseases have increased.
Unfortunately, there is a limit to what can be done for the people already born with ailments caused by fetal poisoning. Whatever can be done for them has to be balanced with a moral response to future generations. What Philip Zimbardo said about individual psychology can be said about collective psychology: the optimal temporal mix includes a consideration of future consequences. But if that consideration is only for the future of the self, and not for future generations, it is as selfish and immoral as the present-focused hedonism of a drug addict.
I’ll give the last word to the radioman of the Lucky Dragon, the Japanese tuna boat that was showered in the fallout of a nuclear weapon test in 1954. He died of radiation poisoning shortly afterwards, and his dying wish was not that there would someday be a cure for radiation sickness. His wish was that he would be the last victim of atomic weapons.

Sources and Further Reading

The Cancer Prevention Coalition

Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?--A Scientific Detective Story

Last Call at the Oasis
"[Brokovich] was receiving up to 50,000 emails per month from people reporting health issues in their communities, writing concerns such as: 'We think it's odd that we have 18 people on our street with Hodgkins; We think it's odd that we have 15 kids on our street with leukemia; We think it's odd that we have 20 people in the community with glioblastoma brain tumors.'"

Book summary: We are all shaped by our genetic inheritance and by the environment we live in. Indeed, the argument about which of these two forces, nature or nurture, predominates has been raging for decades. But what about our very first environment--the prenatal world where we exist for nine months between conception and birth and where we are more vulnerable than at any other point in our lives?
In More Than Genes, Dan Agin marshals new scientific evidence to argue that the fetal environment can be just as crucial as genetic hard-wiring or even later environment in determining our intelligence and behavior. Stress during pregnancy, for example, puts women at far greater risk of bearing children prone to anxiety disorders. Nutritional deprivation during early fetal development may elevate the risk of late onset schizophrenia. And exposure to a whole host of environmental toxins--methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, pesticides, ionizing radiation, and most especially lead--as well as maternal use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or cocaine can have impacts ranging from mild cognitive impairment to ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. Agin argues as well that differences in IQ among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are far more attributable to higher levels of stress and chemical toxicity in inner cities--which seep into the prenatal environment and compromise the health of the fetus--than to genetic inheritance.

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