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November 12, 2001—In Praise of Instability

In Praise of Instability. On November 1st, Ralph Peters, U.S. Army Retired, authored "In Praise of Instability" for the Wall Street Journal (p. A20). He wants the U.S. to stop propping up dictators, satraps, and defunct regimes around the world. He thinks our top policy dogs can't "move beyond Cold War models" and "diplomatic groupthink that cuts across party lines in Washington." He finds that we are trying to hold onto a world that is gone -- dangerous for the world and for us. It's time, he thinks, to promote change in Asia and the Middle East, not resist it in the name of stability. Of course, Peters, anxious to make his case, neglects to mention that a president who has cosied up to Ted Kennedy and Russia's Putin is not exactly fighting the future.

Preventive Health. What we are learning at the turn of the century is that we need wrenching, giant steps to make our world work. Catalytic converters in cars won't do it for the environment. New catheters won't do it for the heart. And new ways of filling people with insulin won't really deal with the national diabetes crisis. We are rediscovering in 2001 that health is intimately connected with preventive health measures, which are intimately linked to worldwide public health programs. We should be making a whole lot more out of the U.N.'s World Health Organization and public-health servants across the globe.

Our national health system is now surely a cancer on the body politic. National health is getting worse, and yet healthcare costs are depleting the national treasury, more draining than the Defense Department. We can barely afford to fight real wars, because we are losing the healthcare battle.

The dynamics in developed countries (an aging population) as well as in developing countries (starving children) favor preventive medicine. Our health remedy apparatus (hospitals, doctors, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals) has no economic leverage for society. We need prescriptions that improve health, not band aids that lessen disease.

Eco-Effective. Recently, we chatted with architect and environmentalist Bill McDonough. I asked him if we could say that his goal is to be eco-effective rather than eco-efficient. He said, "Yes, but nobody will know what you mean." What he means is that it's not enough to stop poisoning the world: you have to start up the bliss. That is, if you are an electric utility, you get no environmental points for reducing emissions. Your system, whatever it is, has to make the environment better. Environmental harmony means that what you take in from nature and give out to it has to make nature happy, instead of causing the earth and the skies to weep. One-time dean of the UVa Architecture School, McDonough now runs a small architectural firm (http://www.mcdonough.com/) with humongous ambitions. He claims not only to help the environment but to do it in a way that makes economic horsesense. For instance, his River Rouge project for Ford will probably save $30 million or so over conventional engineering, his grass roof and swales creating major joy for regulators at the EPA.

Radical Urgency. Having slept through the 1990s, we probably thought we would have a sleepy 21st century as well. But in health, and in the environment, and in international affairs, it is rather clear that an incremental agenda will not work. In each case, we must turn the world upside down to keep going. Stability requires large, measured doses of instability.

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