Let me ask you a question: would you take a medication called “Bald’s Best Medicine?” Yes, it does sound like something that would sell well in Brooklyn. If it promised to guard against male pattern baldness, I’d do it. Otherwise, probably not. What if I told you it came from a 1,000 year old medical book? And what if I told you it was supposed to cure staph infection? Yeah, like that big, ugly infection that you don’t want to Google image search. 1 Definitely not, I would never take it. And what if I told you your prescription for “Bald’s Best” was prepared by people who spend their free time re-enacting viking battle scenes? There is just no way in hell.
But what if I told you Bald’s Best Medicine had appeared on an episode of Radiolab? Oh well sure, that’s fine then. When Radiolab suggests the future of antibiotics might lie in the distant past we nod our heads and say, “Of course.”
This was a fun and interesting episode of Radiolab, but I imagine it will fade from many listeners’ memories. Robert’s dramatized introduction of a “story of an axe-wielding nun coming in through the window to smack some staphylococcus and bring you back to the future” slightly oversells the episode. Are you surprised that Bald’s Best Medicine actually worked, even after 1,000 years? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be: it probably wouldn’t be on the radio if it didn’t.
Even if the story fades, there is one thing that stood out for me. As we use antibiotics, bacteria develop immunities. The fear is that, if we overuse our antibacterial drugs, ultra-resistant versions of diseases will appear and go all Andromeda Strain on us. Towards the end of the episode Radiolab suggests that alternating between different antibiotics might stave off the dreaded superbug.
If that’s the case and our only hope is our collective restraint, let’s just say I’m not too bullish on our future.
My first experience with our endless desire to exhaust our resources came when I was eight years old. Just imagine: You’re eight years old. You walk through your kitchen and spot, from the corner of your eye, a plate of chocolate chip cookies. The plate hangs invitingly over the counter. Just one, you think. No one will notice. You take one. It’s still warm from the oven. You eat it. It is divine. So you have one more. And then a third. No one will notice. Then another and then just one more after that. And then you go blind with passion and feast mightily. Suddenly, the plate is barren. Now, it’s too late. Everyone will notice.
Sadly, we all grow up. The stakes get higher. Dodo birds were once so abundant they blocked out the sun. 2 We hunted them into extinction. Scientists agree we need to make drastic changes to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Those cuts are, by and large, yet to come.
These collective action problems are notoriously difficult to solve. Each person’s individual contributions don’t count for much, so there’s not much incentive to change your behavior, even if you know better. The thing is, it just feels so good right now. When you’re gorging on cookies you don’t think of the empty plate. When you’re eating that sweet dodo meat 3 you don’t think about a dodo-less Earth.
You know the old adage: too much of a good thing will kill you. It’s true of coal, hot dogs, and even antibiotics.
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