Of side-effects of medicine, fossil-fuel subsidies and willful blindness

Antibiotics are really scary. Oh boy, they should be banned! They are just plain bad for you – I mean check it out?

Indigestion, Vomiting, Diarrhoea, Bloating or feeling full, Loss of appetite, Stomach pain or cramping, Seizures, Hallucinations, Delirium, Psychosis, Encephalopathy, Tinnitus, Blurred vision, Dizziness, Pseudotumor cerebri, Suicide

Severe, chronic, or untreated cases of C-difficile-induced colitis can lead to death.

Certain may interact with a person’s other medicines or supplements. The symptoms of drug interactions range from mild to life threatening.

Some antibiotics that may cause photosensitivity include ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, and levofloxacin.

In rare cases, antibiotics can cause an extremely severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis can be fatal without immediate emergency care.

These are medical professionals, scientists, telling you all these awful things can happen – and you just ignore them and use antibiotics anyway? And the government subsidizes them – crazy right? Divest, protest, lock-up the CEOs of the companies who make them.

(Subtitles for the hard of thinking: Antibiotics are not bad – the above is satire, you never know on social media who might misunderstand…..)

Of course, if you look at ONLY the possible bad (fatal!) side effects you could come to the obvious conclusion that they should be immediately banned.

Any argument to not use antibiotics for fear of dying from the side effects would totally discount the truly massive benefits that antibiotics have brought to the modern world.

We have never experienced Cholera, Smallpox, Typhus, Yellow fever, Plague, Scarlet Fever, or even Measles and we have collectively forgotten the horrors that these are (despite TB having killed 1.5 million people worldwide in 2020 according to the WHO). Luckily the medical profession has not. A combination of vaccines, eradication and antibiotics have driven these out of our field of view, and our lives are infinitely better as a result.

Do you know anyone who has had, let alone died of, any of these? No. probably not.

Today the biggest killers are cancers and “lifestyle” diseases (cardio-vascular and increasingly diabetes). Lifestyle killers have become more prevalent – there is little evidence (outside of smoking related cancers) that cancer has become vastly more fatal than it used to be.

No, the absence of these historic killers has changed the ranking of fatalities in most developed societies and change the prevalence of remaining causes of death. As a result, more people do die of cancer and heart-disease, but this is because they are not dying prematurely of infectious diseases.

Focusing on the scary looking side-effects of antibiotics would lead to a dangerously wrong conclusion about their value to society.

In the same way, thanks to the immense wealth and material comfort that fossil-fuels have created – always-on, dirt-cheap energy is not a commodity; it is the enabler of modern society, the life-blood of the economy – we can be oblivious to this value and focus only on the negative aspects, of which particulate pollution and GHG emissions are real and worrying. However, as with the rant about antibiotics, focusing on only the negative would lead to dangerously wrong conclusions.

I find the posts on social media which point out (quite correctly) all the great products we get from hydrocarbons miss the point. Hydrocarbons have given us “everything” – even the ability to find substitutes for the products itemized in these posts. These cute infographics are a distraction in many ways – because the real value is in economic development and indeed Human Development. There is an incontestable correlation of increased energy use with all measures of human well being and the Human Development Index. The role of energy can be overlooked because these development measures can be (correctly) attributed to advances in technology, medicine, farming, biotech etc. The simplest way to think about this is that without cheap and abundant energy the vast majority of people would be involved in agriculture and not freed from this burden to develop all the wonderful tech we use and take for granted today. Energy is clearly the enabler.

So what if we accept that cheap abundant energy IS the lifeblood of the economy, if indeed energy is the economy? The keep-it-in-the-ground advocates can simply point to the “fact” that renewable energy is now cheaper. Ergo, replacing the polluting fossil fuels with cheap and clean renewables will solve everything.

The cost and externalities of renewable energy are beyond the scope of this post (but I will address in subsequent posts). It is increasingly clear that replacing our current system is going to have huge costs and equally huge externalities. We may decide this is a trade-off we are willing to make – but until the conversation is re-balanced, we will have dogmatic yelling across the chasm of misunderstanding.

Journalists, academics, social media punters and politicians should be aware that a debate that involves simply looking at only negatives on one side and only positives on the other is never going to be constructive. Worse still, is that deliberately or subconsciously ignoring the costs and negative externalities of the Green Energy Transition – will lead to nasty (horrendous) surprises – and a public backlash that will derail the process entirely. It may already be happening.

NB in case you have deja-vu, this is a reprise of an article I wrote on 1st February 2021 on Linkedin