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And Now for the Weather…

This Blog covers a wide range of topics but rarely delves into climate change or anything remotely associated with global warming. However, as I review a wide range of economic, social, cultural, and political literature in between issues, it is amazing how much is now driven by changing weather patterns. In my view, it is not essential that we understand all causative factors and certainly, I am not in a position to assign blame, but I do find it increasingly wise to know what’s going on. Of course, that wouldn’t have helped the folks in Oklahoma this week who have been devastated by serial Category IV and V tornados.

In pursuit of the best possible information, I typically turn to a non-political, unaffiliated ‘think tank’ such as the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), which, in my view, is one of the best at reporting data and leaving interpretation to the reader. Perhaps most important to readers, the EPI has identified eco-economy indicators – twelve trends that are tracked to measure progress in building a sustainable economy. While I won’t share all of those trends in this limited space, some recent information from the EPI’s Janet Larsen is worth noting and considering, especially if you devote time to long-range planning. Again, there is little interpretation here. There is value in knowing what is happening and using that information as a foundation for discussion.

A review of recorded data shows that the world has warmed by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) since the Industrial Revolution, with most of the rise in temperature coming since the 1970s. Such rapid warming is unprecedented over at least 20,000 years. The average global temperature in 2012 was 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it among the 10 warmest years ever recorded, all of which, according to NASA data dating back to 1880, have occurred in the last 14 years. July 2012 was the hottest month ever in the continental United States, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Overall, 2012 was the hottest year in U.S. history, topping the twentieth-century average by more than 3 degrees.

Records for the winter of 2011-2012 clearly show that snow coverage across the lower 48 states was the third lowest on record, and for many areas, summer-like weather arrived in March. Close to 15,000 new high-temperature records were set. 2012 was the warmest spring in U.S. history, setting the stage for further high temperatures and even more drought, which at one point covered nearly two thirds of the country. Purdue University economist Chris Hurt estimates the cost of the drought could exceed $75 billion. Unfortunately, with drought now predicted for 2013, particularly in the Great Plains, the odds of a second year of harvest shortfalls are increasing.

From a global perspective, 2012 was quite warm in Canada, where last summer was the warmest on record. For Russia it was the second warmest, just behind summer 2010. Crops suffered in both years, contributing to rising food prices. In France, an unusually late and sudden heat wave toward the end of August broke the high-temperature records set during the 2003 heat wave that killed nearly 15,000 people nationwide.

In northeastern Brazil, the first half of 2012 was extraordinarily dry. More than 1,100 towns were affected in the worst drought in 50 years, in drastic contrast to August 2012, which brought extreme rain and flooding to central and northern Argentina, with rainfall in some places double previous records, based on statistics kept since 1875.

Most are growing to understand that drought is only one by-product of climate change. The other catastrophic weather event of 2012 demonstrated the other extreme: Superstorm Sandy, which brought more than a foot of rainfall to parts of the mid-Atlantic region. The data indicate that Sandy’s unusual coastal trajectory was due to changes in atmospheric circulation caused by the loss of sea ice in the rapidly warming Arctic. Close to 100 people died in New York and New Jersey and more than a half-million homes were damaged or destroyed. Blizzards blanketed parts of Appalachia with the most snow ever recorded for a U.S. storm in October.

It is now clear that, as the Arctic’s reflective ice cover shrinks, more heat is absorbed, resulting in a smaller temperature differential between the North Pole and higher latitudes. This can cause the jet stream to slow down, stalling typical weather patterns and leading to prolonged extreme events. Regional warming is also accelerating ice melt in Greenland, which contains enough water to raise global sea level by 23 feet.  In late May 2012, southern Greenland reached 76.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In mid-July, 97 percent of its surface area was melting.

Climate change tends to bring more high temperature records than low ones, but it can also bring extreme cold. In late January to mid-February 2012, parts of central Europe did not get above freezing for 20 days straight, twice as long as the February norm. Then at the close of 2012, a dip in the polar jet stream returned frigid weather to Russia, northern and eastern China, and northern Europe. Just a few months after Russia’s second warmest summer, December temperatures plunged to the lowest level in the records kept since 1938. In Moscow the mercury dropped to –22 degrees Fahrenheit; in eastern Siberia, it was –76.

In 2010-2011, Australia had its wettest two-year period in over a century, which came on the heels of a decade-long epic drought. But 2012 began cool and wet then turned dry and very hot. The heat wave was unusually long and widespread, with high-temperature records set in every state.

 As my friend Everett noted recently, “For those skeptics who refuse to believe that we humans are causing climate change, see the Guardian’s recent (May 15) article referencing the comprehensive study of all of the peer-reviewed scholarly studies of climate change over the past 20 years.  The score:  97.1% conclude that climate change is anthropogenic (human caused); 0.7% said it is not anthropogenic; 2.2% are not sure.  That means that of all serious scientific studies, there are 139 that conclude climate change is anthropogenic for every 1 that does not.  I’ll go with the 139.”  In this case, ‘comprehensive study’ means a review of the work of 29,000 scientists on 11,994 papers…not a sample easily ignored (although many will continue to dispute reality).

Without attributing causation, tracking hard data has allowed scientists to create models that predict that increasing global temperatures will produce heat waves, larger, more frequent and more violent storms, more floods and deeper cooling in some areas. The essential question pertains to how climate will impact economic vitality, cultural stability and geo-political harmony. How will the climate impact agriculture?  Where will displaced populations go? What will the health effects be? How should business, government and citizens prepare? If, as the data indicate, the planet has entered a prolonged period of severe climate change, planning and preparation is more critical than ever and denial is no longer prudent. What is your city and county doing? Is scenario planning being done? If not, why not?

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Is Anyone Hungry?

The election year circus has once again managed to overwhelm the media and most citizens who probably should be paying attention to other, more relevant challenges.

The U.S. is facing enormous debt, there is continued loss of life in dubious foreign deployments along with an out of control health care system, rampant natural resource depletion, widespread drought, declining educational performance, endemic financial malfeasance, latent mortgage issues, and a rapidly eroding infrastructure. While the economy has been slow to rebound, the complex equation required for a market crash was not a ‘Black Swan’ event.  We have lived large for too long and must pull back, regroup, and build a wiser platform for sustainable economic development.  Many regulators and economists across the world have provided warnings over the past several decades. Because most of them went unheeded, the slope finally became too slippery and down we went.

But, even with all these converging variables, there is another compelling force that has the power to cripple entire societies, cultures, economies, and empires. Very simply, close to one billion people on this planet are starving. The combination of climate change, population explosions among the poorest nations, failed crops and foolish public policy has led us to the brink of disaster. In many nations, the disaster is well underway.

Through 2001, annual world carry-over grain stocks averaged 107 days of consumption. Due to poor planning, reduced harvests and uneven distribution, from 2002 through 2011 carryover stocks averaged only 74 days of consumption, signaling that the period of world food security has ended. Very simply, this means that the world is now living from one annual harvest to the next, with producing countries hoping to produce enough to meet demand, while grain storage declines.

Exporting countries have begun to restrict exports to maintain supplies and stabilize prices. While this has not devolved into hoarding, it portends for many a hungry future. Unfortunately, for those countries that rely on imports to feed their people, high prices are combining with inadequate supplies to drive up competition for basic grains, resulting in an enormous escalation in malnutrition and death by starvation. By the end of the last century, the number of hungry people in the world was at an all-time low of 792 million in 1997. However, since that time the number has risen to almost 1 billion, with most of the people who are chronically hungry or malnourished living in the Indian subcontinent or sub-Saharan Africa.

While this may not strike chords of empathy in the U.S. population, this country is also experiencing a steady escalation in the number of people living below the poverty line and the number who are under- or malnourished. As a fundamental platform for advanced cultures, grains are under assault as never before. Demand is being driven by two traditional forces- population growth and the number of people in industrialized populations that tend to consume more meat, poultry and eggs, all of which are grain-intensive products.  A legitimate Black Swan that has emerged as a major competitor for grain is the automobile…and fuels that now utilize ethanol distilled from grain. Consider that, in 2011, the United States harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain. Of this, nearly 127 million tons was used to produce ethanol. Competition for grain has never been higher. Population growth, the emergence of more industrialized nations with high GDPs and the huge numbers of new automobiles in those societies (as well as the number of vehicles in the U.S.), have created a win-lose proposition for the planet’s poorest people.

This competition has raised global grain consumption from an average of 21 million tons per year from 1990 to 2005 to 45 million tons per year from 2005 to 2011. As grain stores have been depleted, two additional factors have entered the equation. Regardless the cause, global climate shifts have brought new weather patterns that have introduced drier weather to some areas and much wetter weather to other areas that had previously counted on reasonably stable growing seasons and predictable harvests. Now, violent, unpredictable weather is bringing floods or drought, such as occurred during 2012, when corn harvests were only a fraction of normal levels. Corn prices have gone as high as $8.43 a bushel (back to around $5 currently), based on the lowest corn yields since 2006.

As populations and automobile use have grown, aquifers have been depleted or are running dry. Overpumping and water extraction from reservoirs have allowed farmers to keep pace, but millions of people in India, China and the U.S. are being fed with grains available only because of a total disregard for future water usage. Not only are city water supplies competing with agriculture for available water, we are using it at astounding, unsustainable rates.

Such messages are being lost in political, economic and international news that seems more important as the election nears. Unfortunately, people are dying, social structures are eroding and economies are failing due to crop failure and poor nutrition. While the U.S. has enormous land resources, another serious drought through the Midwest could drastically reduce grain stores and drive costs higher than this year’s record prices. Exports would be curtailed, compounding grain shortages in many parts of the world that rely on U.S. production. Stay abreast of this situation. Water, grain, weather and land available for farming are all linked to a re-stabilizing economy. There are many factors and uncontrollable forces that impact the global and U.S. economies. Keep your eye on grain production, carry-over grain stocks, and food prices. These factors could very well be pivotal in 2013 and won’t be influenced by the election.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Vision and Common Sense

Gathering information for this Blog created a confusing torrent of points and counter points around the central theme of preparing for a challenging future. Going back to a decent article in the June 2008 issue of Public Management Magazine, I found a reasonable discussion on setting community priorities. The article, by Chris Fabian, Scott Collins and Jon Johnson, provided both rationale and structure for identifying and establishing priorities but also raised deeper questions about what constitutes true crisis and what is merely social evolution.

The opening question pertains to whether our top concern should be the fiscal crisis. Progress made during the intervening four and a half years since 2008 has not reduced the relevance of such queries but one might wonder if there are larger questions that might contribute to better governance and more thoughtful policy formulation. While the recession has created a service contraction in many communities, it has also raised questions regarding long-term value, contribution and what constitutes quality of community life. After 30 to 50 years of expansion, federal, state and local governments have experienced considerable contraction. This has hurt some constituencies that have grown comfortable with various support systems, but contraction has also raised questions about the ideal level of fiscal support for parks, recreation, the arts, preschool, halfway houses, and literally hundreds of services that have become elements of the American landscape. I don’t judge the merits of any program, but have spoken freely about the challenge of triage left to community leaders and elected officials. Theirs is no easy task.

The 2008 article in PM, Getting Your Priorities Straight, concluded that prioritization is a better way to deal with the fiscal crisis. My response when I first read it and as I read it again, is ‘duh!’ Much of the rationale shared by the authors was lifted from Hammer and Champy’s book Reengineering the Corporation (1993) and Osborne and Hutchinson’s The Price of Government (2004). Both are good books and have relevance today. However, retreading accepted management theory does not bring the necessary level of direction or solutions to current challenges or those expected the remainder of this decade. Yes, measurement is essential; yes, program value must be ascertained; and yes, outcomes must be desired and tracked.

My perspective has always been tempered by a commitment to simplicity. In Chapter 11 of my book, Planning the Future, I offer a simple diagram that will drive planning and priority setting for any program of government. The ultimate questions inherent in the model are, “What is too high that must be reduced? What is too low that must be increased? and , What is at acceptable levels that must be maintained?” By assigning metrics to every program element, subject matter experts can determine what needs to be done, by how much and by when. The question then becomes one of value and where the community (or agency) gains the most by achieving an established goal. Frankly, many pages of charts and academic models are attractive, but too time consuming, confusing and beside the point.

With global interconnectivity increasing, foreign labor costs rising, economies struggling, re-shoring escalating, and world governments looking for leadership, America stands at a crossroads. Rethinking old ways is essential. However, we need simple, thoughtful approaches to community development and economic vitality. New York Times writer David Brooks has championed the need for American communities and business leaders to broaden their perspective and embrace a vision of a nation fully capable of leading in the 21st Century. This nation is connected to the world, it has exceptional universities, and a deep commitment to research; it is creative, has rules of law, and protections for entrepreneurs; and, the U.S. has capital funds for new ventures, new enterprises, and new opportunities.

Planning at the community level must have two platforms. One is local/ regional; the other is national/ global. As a nation and in most communities, the greatest value will be derived from matching vision with practical planning and implementation. The question is, Who will connect the dots and not get caught up in the process? As globalization morphs into its next form, the U.S. and her communities have enormous opportunity to rethink government service delivery while fulfilling a broader agenda of national growth, stability and sustainable vitality. Recasting old systems and processes won’t deliver the desired outcomes. Let’s get on with the tasks required to rebuild infrastructure, strengthen the educational system, reform the tax code, and welcome back business that wants to come home. Triage must still be accomplished. However, it will be driven by a new vision of what communities truly need to build and sustain programs and systems for a challenging and transformative era.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal government long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Declining U.S. Water and Sewer Systems

There is growing discontent across America about the cost associated with upgrading sewer and water systems. As reported in this Blog previously, deferred maintenance is beginning to reap negative rewards that are overwhelming already stressed cities and counties. Especially during this past winter, when freezing temperatures in the Northeast caused a rash of water main ruptures, the problem is now beginning to raise the ire of citizens. Elected and appointed officials are also reeling from the effects of failing systems inherited from other administrations that failed to invest in maintenance and replacement. Now, with costs rising and revenue falling, there are insufficient tax dollars to address serious issues.

According to EPA data, a major water main ruptures somewhere in the U.S. every two minutes and this rate seems to be rising as more old systems fail. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority data indicates that in the Washington D.C. area alone water pipes average 76 years old and the system averages a pipe break every day. All it takes is a quick freeze or a week of heavy rains and the city’s system can be overwhelmed. When this occurs, untreated sewage can flow into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, causing a variety of health and environmental challenges.

Each year there are many state and federal studies indicating that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly. ‘May be’ is too soft. The fact is, there are many systems across the nation in dire need of repair, upgrading or total replacement. Over time, the cost will approach a half trillion dollars, just to get systems up to standard so failures can be avoided.

The reality is that Americans pay very little for sewer and water services and resist the slightest tax or fee increase. As with other aspects of American life, when asked if they would rather have safe, secure and ample water or low taxes, citizens answer, “Yes!”

Especially in Eastern cities many water systems were built in the late 1800s and thousands of systems are 80 to 100 years old. Problems are buried in the ground, out of sight of elected officials and typically ignored by citizens until a major break occurs. Each rupture contaminates water supplies, damages streets, and generates a variety of unfunded expenses that would have been avoided through regular maintenance and system upgrades.

Last year, federal lawmakers allocated more than $10 billion for water infrastructure programs, one of the most significant financial commitments in recent history. Unfortunately, a 2009 E.P.A. study estimated that $335 billion would be needed just to maintain only the nation’s tap water systems in coming decades (sewer systems will take at least that much). In New York, officials estimate that $36 billion is needed in the next 20 years just to upgrade municipal wastewater systems. Clearly, the total amount of funding nationally is not nearly enough to cover the cost of needed repairs and to upgrade systems to accommodate demand.

Charles Duhigg of the New York Times has reported that George Hawkins, director of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority ‘has suggested raising water rates for the average resident by almost 17 percent, to about $60 a month per household. Over the coming six years, that rate would rise above $100. To bring those lapses into the light, Mr. Hawkins has become a cheerleader for rate increases. He has begun a media assault highlighting the city’s water woes. He has created a blog and a Facebook page that explain why pipes break. He regularly appears on newscasts and radio shows, and has filled a personal Web site with video clips of his appearances. ‘

 “This is the fight of our lifetimes,” he added. “Water is tied into everything we should care about. Someday, people are going to talk about our sewers with a real sense of pride.” Hawkins also notes that most people think nothing of spending $100 per month for cable TV or cell phones but don’t want to pay for community water systems that are immeasurably more critical.

Even with new fee increases it would take Washington D.C. 100 years to replace all of its old pipes – then the cycle repeats itself. Hawkins has tried to explain to citizens that with the previous budget it would take three centuries to replace the system. He has not found great support, regardless of data indicating the wisdom of a sound replacement and funding strategy. New York Times writer Duhigg has noted that Philadelphia is ready to start collecting $1.6 billion for new approaches that will prevent rain water from overwhelming the sewer system. Communities around Cleveland threatened to sue when the regional utility proposed charging homeowners for water pollution running off their property. And, in central Florida, a $1.8 billion proposal to build a network of drinking water pipes has drawn organized protests.

The real challenge pertains to how to triage community needs while convincing citizens that some aspects of each community are essential and cannot be neglected. To do so costs more money in the long run, adding to deep and growing deficits. Having provided the keynotes for the national EPA conference on water system sustainability and the National Association of Water Companies annual conference, plus several similar programs, I can attest to the growing frustration. Water is the lifeblood of every community and cannot be neglected. But how will each community organize its funding priorities when so many services are needed?  There is no easy fix and both leadership and wise strategic planning is needed NOW.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Building a Long-Term Economy

Some time ago, I and others predicted that the unemployment rate would soar to 9.5% or even higher, although I felt it might drop after hitting the mid 9s. This may or may not come true, but it is clear that unemployment in many communities is now well above 10 percent and in some it is painfully above 20 percent. The best estimates now see the peak in Q1 2010 at over 10 percent before beginning to decline.

Combined forces are at work here. All generations are reeling from job contraction and are transitioning to a more conservative approach to life. There is a prevalent ‘wait and see’ attitude among consumers and, coupled with the emerging ‘do we really need that?’ mentality, consumption will continue to lag. Over the long term, this is not bad and in fact should strengthen and stabilize national and local economies. In the short term however, it retards growth, promotes fear of the future, and raises questions about the wisdom of public leaders. 

Some analysts predict a mild short-term recovery in 2010-2011 followed by a drift back into recession. Growth will be predictably slow – far below the growth rate experienced after several deep recessions occurring since WWII. There are now discussions about the value of another stimulus, with strong arguments brewing on both sides. History tells us that if private sector market forces cannot recharge quickly enough, the government can play a valuable role as stimulator, but certainly, it is a slippery slope. As with any crises (even one that was predicted in many quarters) decisive action is essential. Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated the value of action in his first 105 days, with the passage of 15 major bills through Congress. Most of those bills provided relief for citizens and sustained business through a slow economic recovery. Above all, he concentrated on what was in the best interest of the Nation, regardless of theory or historic precedent. Mostly, it was Roosevelt’s intuitive leadership that prevailed during the economic crisis of the 1930s and it continued through WWII. 

Mark Zandi, the celebrated chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com is forecasting that unemployment will remain at current or higher levels until sometime in 2011 due to slow job growth. This, very predictably, is due to the time required for the economy to re-center itself. Alan Levenson, chief economist for investment manager T. Rowe Price, terms this lethargic rebound “dyna-minimalism.” Very simply, this means that debt has been reduced and savings have been regenerated to the point there is ample fuel for an economic rebound, but the timidity of lending institutions is inhibiting business growth opportunities. Coupled with more selective consumer spending, this will slow the normal cycle of consumerism that reduces inventories and generates new production cycles.

Guests on Face the Nation and other Sunday TV news programs yammer about the poorly performing stimulus and accompanying deficit. What many either don’t admit or understand is that the world’s leading economists believe the current crises will correct slowly and may not return to robust levels for many years. After the stimulus, the economy must regenerate on its own and be driven by consumer spending. If this lags, stimulus funds may not last long enough to get communities through to the next natural cycle. The government cannot continue to artificially stimulate spending. This reduces consumer confidence and encourages people (as well as banks and business) to continue hoarding – thus extending the unnatural cycle of government assistance and creating the potential for a much longer recession – one that could last a decade. Clearly, we are at a tipping point. 

Confronting reality is never easy. However, if Marty Regalia, the chief economist for the US Chamber of Commerce, predicts unemployment at 9 percent or higher into 2011, attention must turn to a longer-term community vision and action plans that deal with that reality and not an expectation that good times are around the corner. Public leaders are in a tight spot. Blending optimism with factual assessment is an art. However, as I have stated before, our research has revealed that in times of crisis citizens and communities respond to and need four things: Clarity, Direction, Truth, and a Dignified, Harmonious Style. Elected officials and professional public managers are in a tough position. Providing these essential elements will help communities work through what promises to be a protracted re-centering of the culture and economy. Are you Prepared For Challenge?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Visit www.futurescorp.com and click on Public Futures.

‘Pandemic’ – An Evolving Characterization

By now most citizens realize that a pandemic is a global disease outbreak exacerbated by populations that have little immunity to the pathogen. Much has been written about historic influenza outbreaks, mostly about the 1918 pandemic of “Spanish Flu” that killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people in one year. With no natural immunity, an estimated 28 percent of all Americans contracted the disease and an estimated 675,000 died – ten times as many as were killed in WW I. During this time the influenza epidemic was so potent that it reduced the average life span of a U.S. citizen by close to 10 years.

Where did it come from? The precise origin of the 1918 epidemic remains uncertain, although some retroactive forensic work has suggested that it may have first appeared in China. But, due to primitive medical care and no public health system, it was not tracked and curtailed before it began to spread to other countries. It could have been incubating for decades before finally reaching its exceptionally virulent stage and rampaging through populations.

As others have pointed out, this pandemic has interesting characteristics that should moderate any inclination to panic. While we live in an enormously connected world where any disease can quickly spread, we also have a superbly connected and communicative scientific community with huge resources to battle a new disease. So, while the swine flu can potentially spread fast, treatment and curative solutions will emerge just as fast.

This is not the ‘Big One”

With all this in mind, is there a chance that this pandemic could generate the level of destruction and tragic loss of life that occurred in 1918? Clearly, no. From reports just today, Mexican health authorities feel the outbreak has already lost its momentum – not to say it could not re-energize and infect thousands more over the next few months.  It is interesting that it is barely news when 36,000 people die from the flu annually in the United States. But this flu is ‘new’ and has associated unknowns. (It really isn’t new – it has been around for decades.)

Because a pandemic typically is caused by new combinations of avian, human or swine viruses, spreads among humans, is contracted by healthy younger populations, and continues to evolve, the swine flu has characteristics associated with a pandemic. Historically the CDC has had cases of swine flu reported in the U.S. (12 cases from December 2005 through February 2009), so this basic form of pathogen is generally known. This H1N1 strain is already being addressed through rapid, coordinated, and sensible actions through public health and scientific organizations in virtually every country. In 1918, fully one fifth of the world population was infected with the influenza virus. The chance of this level of contagion is very remote.

From my perspective, it seems a bit premature for Egypt to slaughter an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 pigs to avoid disease spread – especially in swine populations where no sign of the disease has been found. It is even more curious because swine influenza viruses are not transmitted by food and humans cannot get the disease from eating pork or pork products. Properly handled and cooked pork and pork products are safe.

It would appear that the best course of action is similar to most responses – don’t panic, take precautions, be careful, and pay attention. There are much nastier bugs out there – many we don’t understand and aren’t prepared for. For this ‘pandemic,’ communities and public organizations need to share information with a message of calm assurance when providing facts about the disease and what is being done to address its spread and impact. Similar to the current economic crises, it isn’t 1918 and there are more tools in the tool kit in 2009 that were available then. Pandemic or not, there is also a very potent ‘pandemic’ of response.

__________________ 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.