Rudi Kiefer: We have reasons for optimism in 2018

The first week of 2018 has passed. Are we better off than we were 100 years ago?

In the United States and elsewhere, the big news of 1918 was the Spanish flu pandemic. A pandemic disease affects regions worldwide. The influenza virus killed an estimated 50 million people, 675,000 of them in the U.S.

A fact that puzzled doctors for several years following the 1918 outbreak was that the majority of victims were young. It is now believed that people older than 30 had been exposed to an earlier, less dangerous variety of the Spanish flu virus, which gave them a measure of immunity.

The virus has not disappeared in the past 100 years. It has mutated into new forms. The avian flu (“bird flu”) of 2005-2007 was caused by a descendant of the 1918 virus. The good thing that came out of it was the realization that flu vaccines may need to be tuned to a patient’s age, considering the strains that she or he is likely to have been exposed to earlier.

1918 was also a year of reckoning with regard to the natural environment. The United States Army was growing rapidly due to military draft established the previous year. Almost 2 million soldiers arrived in France to aid the exhausted French Army.

The fiercest battle had been in 1916 around the town of Verdun. German artillery bombardment turned the hills above the city into a cratered disaster. Up to 1,000 grenades per square meter had been dropped on fields and forests. Almost equal numbers of French and German soldiers were killed, with a total of 700,000. The toll on the environment was massive.

Even today, a visit to the fortresses Douaumont and Vaux shows devastation. Hillsides are torn up, and fields are still pockmarked with craters and scars. Piles of stones mark the remnants of destroyed farm villages. Tour guides warn against straying off the pathways, due to tons of unexploded grenades and bombs lurking underground.

On our continent, 1918 began with catastrophic winter weather. Heavy snow and 50 mph winds choked Ohio and Kentucky. Lows in those states dropped below the minus-20 mark. Bitter cold spread into the Southeast. Even in Florida, temperatures fell into the middle 30s.

1918 was definitely not “good old times.” 100 years distant, we have reason to be optimistic about our new year.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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