Implicating suburban sprawl in the spread of ticks and pathogens

As new tick-borne illnesses spread, sprawl is part of the problem:

But as climate change, suburban sprawl, and increased international travel are putting more ticks and the pathogens they carry in the paths of humans, what’s becoming more urgently apparent is how the US’s tick monitoring systems are not keeping pace.

“It’s really a patchwork in terms of the effort that different areas are putting into surveillance,” says Becky Eisen, a tick biologist with CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne diseases. The federal public health agency maintains national maps of the ranges of different tick species, but they’re extrapolated from scattered data collected in large part by academic researchers. Only a few states, mostly in the Northeast, have dedicated tick surveillance and control programs. That leaves large parts of the country in a data blackout.

To help address that problem the CDC is funding an effort to identify the most urgent gaps in surveillance. It has also begun publishing guidance documents for public health departments on how to collect ticks and test them for diseases, to encourage more consistent data collection across different states and counties.

In an ideal world, says Eisen, every county in the US would send a few well-protected people out into fields and forests every spring and summer, setting traps or dragging a white flannel sheet between them to collect all the ticks making their homes in the grasses and underbrush. Their precise numbers, locations, and species would be recorded so that later on when they get ground up and tested, that DNA would paint a national picture of risk for exposure to every tick-borne pathogen in America. But she recognizes that would be incredibly labor-intensive, and with only so many public funding dollars to go around each year, there are always competing priorities.“But from a research perspective, that’s the kind of repeatable, consistent data we’d really want,” says Eisen. “That would be the dream.”

While there is little direct discussion of sprawl, I wonder if there are two problems at play.

First, sprawl puts more people in interaction with more natural settings. As metropolitan areas expand, more residents end up in higher densities in areas that previously had experienced limited human residence. More people at the wildland urban interface could potentially lead to more problems in both directions: humans can pick up diseases while nature can be negatively impacted by more people.

Second, increasing sprawl means more data needs to be collected as more people are at possible threat. Metropolitan areas (metropolitan statistical areas according to the Census Bureau) typically expand county by county as outer counties increase in population and have more ties to the rest of the region. Since many metropolitan regions expand in circles, adding more counties at the edges could significantly increase the number of counties that need monitoring. And as the article ends with, finding money to do all that data collection and analysis is difficult.

Making a horror film about illnesses carried by ticks would take some work to make interesting but these sorts of hidden and minimally problematic in terms of number of suburbanites at this point issues could cause a lot of anxiety.

Taking a meat axe to Manhattan for a highway

This retelling of efforts to build a highway across lower Manhattan include this graphic description of what Robert Moses was proposing:

Even Moses acknowledged that his methods were extreme. In fact, he had a term for it: The meat ax. New York, he argued, was already so dense and complex that you had to make cuts somewhere. Sure, other newly-planned metropolises could preserve history and make sure everyone was happy. But according to Moses, New York City needed drastic measures, as he argued in a quote from The Power Broker:

“You can draw any kind of pictures you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra and Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

Imagine a bureaucrat saying that today! It was a time before preservation and urban advocacy existed in organised form. Preserving the grit of the city was a laughable idea — the city needed to be purged of its dirt, not protected…

This strange, antiseptic mindset can be traced alllllll the way back to Europe at the turn of the century, when academics and architects first started thinking about cities as living networks. The sociologist Georg Simmel, writing in 1903, was the first to really describe how cities affected the mental outlook of their inhabitants — city dwellers, Simmel reasoned, were blasé, even neurotic, because of the impersonal, overwhelming, and money-obsessed demands of the city.

But to the architects of 1920s and ’30s Europe, the city wasn’t just neurotic. It was actually sick. The thinking went that a city’s ills — crime, poverty, you name it — could be linked to its poor design its thoughtlessly narrow alleys and dirty streets, its crumbling tenements and poor plumbing. Le Corbusier described “the Cancer of Paris,” as Andrew Lees recounts in his book about the urbanism of the time.

If cities or neighborhoods are diseased, planners and others can justify all sorts of actions. Urban renewal in the mid 1900s operated on a similar premise: slums (often home to non-whites or immigrants) could not be redeemed and instead should be replaced with land use that would be much more valuable (and make a lot more money for developers and politicians). Why should older buildings or poorer residents stand in the way of progress for the city and region? Thus, many American cities moved forward with plans that did what Moses suggested: used a meat axe to chop away land from existing neighborhoods for highways, high-rises, and other land uses. While some of these projects have since been reversed (think the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco) or others never got off the ground (see freeway protests as detailed by historian Eric Avila), other projects continue to influence city life. In Chicago alone, think the major expressways in the city including the Eisenhower, the Dan Ryan, and the Kennedy as well as the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

Traffic deaths predicted to be 5th leading cause of death in the developing world

Even as the conversation about safer autonomous cars picks up in the United States, traffic deaths are an increasing problem in the developing world:

It has a global death toll of 1.24 million per year and is on course to triple to 3.6 million per year by 2030.

In the developing world, it will become the fifth leading cause of death, leapfrogging past HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other familiar killers, according to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study.

The victims tend to be poor, young and male.

In one country — Indonesia — the toll is now nearly 120 dead per day; in Nigeria, it is claiming 140 lives each day…

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a “Decade of Action for Road Safety.” The goal is to stabilize and eventually reverse the upward trend in road fatalities, saving an estimated 5 million lives during the period. The World Bank and other regional development banks have made road safety a priority, but according to Irigoyen, donor funding lags “very far below” the $24 billion that has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It sounds like while diseases are well known and relatively well-funded, not many people have caught on to the problems of traffic deaths. This is all about social construction: where are the Bill Gates of the world to come in and tackle traffic problems in poorer nations?

Perhaps this gets less attention it is because cars are viewed as things that may help developing countries improve: owning them means citizens have more economic power and have more independence to get around as well as help their own economic chances (can carry things around, etc.). Particularly from an American point of view, cars are generally good things. But, of course, cars bring other problems in addition to safety concerns: pollution (a huge problem in many large cities), clogged streets, and an infrastructure that may not be able to handle lots of new cars on the roads (maintaining roads, having enough police, driver training, cities that have to redevelop areas to accommodate wider roads).

It will be interesting to see if this gets more attention in the coming years. It is one thing to discuss longer-term consequences of cars like increasing pollution but it is another to ignore large numbers of deaths each day.

Would you rather have been a European or Native American in 1491?

A 2002 article from The Atlantic about pre-Columbian North and South America includes this fascinating paragraph:

I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical Indian or a typical European in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it required judging the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one chose to be an Indian. Some early colonists gave the same answer. Horrifying the leaders of Jamestown and Plymouth, scores of English ran off to live with the Indians. My ancestor shared their desire, which is what led to the trumped-up murder charges against him—or that’s what my grandfather told me, anyway.

Some of reasons for making this choice:

Back home in the Americas, Indian agriculture long sustained some of the world’s largest cities. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán dazzled Hernán Cortés in 1519; it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like hayseeds at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. They had never before seen a city with botanical gardens, for the excellent reason that none existed in Europe. The same novelty attended the force of a thousand men that kept the crowded streets immaculate. (Streets that weren’t ankle-deep in sewage! The conquistadors had never heard of such a thing.) Central America was not the only locus of prosperity. Thousands of miles north, John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, visited Massachusetts in 1614, before it was emptied by disease, and declared that the land was “so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people … [that] I would rather live here than any where.”

Smith was promoting colonization, and so had reason to exaggerate. But he also knew the hunger, sickness, and oppression of European life. France—”by any standards a privileged country,” according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger’s constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts “like common dung” (the simile is Daniel Defoe’s) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, “merely a realistic detail.”

The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson’s history of Indian America, puts the comparison bluntly: “the western hemisphere was larger, richer, and more populous than Europe.” Much of it was freer, too. Europeans, accustomed to the serfdom that thrived from Naples to the Baltic Sea, were puzzled and alarmed by the democratic spirit and respect for human rights in many Indian societies, especially those in North America. In theory, the sachems of New England Indian groups were absolute monarchs. In practice, the colonial leader Roger Williams wrote, “they will not conclude of ought … unto which the people are averse.”

Much to take in.

The antidote to McMansions: tiny houses

If you are suffering from McMansion disease, here is a cure: the tiny house.

Say what you will about tiny homes, the reasons behind their increasing popularity are pretty solid: Small houses are inexpensive and easy to maintain, and they also offer more privacy than your average apartment.

Micro-spaces are especially popular with eco-conscious homeowners invested in consuming less—a stark contrast from their McMansion-buying counterparts of years past. A tiny home pretty much guarantees less electricity and water will be wasted, which is always a good thing.

These mini-houses are from all over the U.S. and they’re selling for a fraction of what a regular home would cost. Even if you’re not up for the challenge of moving into one, they’ll at least inspire you to imagine a reality that’s less focused on accumulating stuff and more focused on living.

While I have read much criticism of McMansions in recent years, I’ve never before seen it compared to a disease or sickness. Are McMansions a sickness the United States needs to be rid of? I’ve tended to see such homes more as symptoms of some larger issues in the United States such as an emphasis on homeownership and sprawl. Talking about McMansions as a disease could contribute to a view that McMansions are a social problem that has been socially constructed. There may not be anything inherently wrong with such homes until they are compared to other homes that are seen as being more moral or decent.

Don’t acquire “McMansion syndrome” when looking for housing

McMansions are often held up as the exemplar of excessive consumption yet I have not seen this suggestion: you can get “McMansion syndrome.”

Here are four ways to minimize lifestyle inflation:

Housing. Housing is the biggest monthly expense for most of us. One way to minimize housing costs is to live in a smaller space. A smaller house in the same area almost always costs less than a bigger house. Fifty years ago, a family of five could live comfortably in a 1,700 square foot home. Why is the ideal home size so big these days? A smaller home will cost less to furnish, maintain, heat, and cool. If you can resist the McMansion syndrome, you can save a lot of money…

Is this a condition now? This reminds me of the 2001 book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic which was based on two 1990s documentaries with the same word. “Affluenza” is clearly a play on “influenza” but I don’t think this term has really caught on. Perhaps “McMansion syndrome” would be catchier?

Sociologist explains that one type of mass hysteria is behind cases in upstate New York

A recent set of odd medical cases in one New York town has prompted news sources to look for explanations. One sociologist suggests the high school students are experiencing one type of mass hysteria:

Most doctors and experts believe that the students are suffering from mass sociogenic illness, also known as mass hysteria. In these cases, psychological symptoms manifest as physical conditions.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of several books on mass hysteria including The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, explained to Discovery News that “there are two main types of contagious conversion disorder. The most common in Western countries is triggered by extreme, sudden stress; usually a bad smell. Symptoms typically include dizziness, headaches, fainting and over-breathing, and resolve within about a day.”

In contrast, Bartholomew said, “The LeRoy students are experiencing the rarer, more serious type affecting muscle motor function and commonly involves twitching, shaking, facial tics, difficulty communicating and trance states. Symptoms appear slowly over weeks or months under exposure to longstanding stress, and typically take weeks or months to subside.”

Mass hysteria cases are more common than people realize and have been reported all over the world for centuries.

Read the rest of the story for four more interesting stories of mass hysteria. These sorts of stories pop up every once in a while: a few people claim to be ill from smelling something but authorities can’t find any issue.

I’ve seen Bartholomew quoted in a few news stories about this mystery illness. I would be interested to hear how he thinks you can defuse this situation; how do you stop mass hysteria? Is it best to focus on reducing the stress of the people experiencing the illness or is it better to split up the group of those experiencing the illness to try to limit the “mass” part of the condition?

Also, do we have any studies of what takes place within a community that is experiencing this as opposed to studying the situations afterward? What is it like for the other students and their families in this high school?

Third, what kind of stress sets this off?

Fourth, is there something about the social networks between those who are ill that matter or the particular institutional setting that people are in (i.e., close quarters for long hours)?