A lesson from smallpox: You can fix the system

I took in one of the University of Minnesota’s “Great Conversations” at Ted Mann Theater on the West Bank in Minneapolis last night. Larry Brilliant, a physician, epidemiologist and philanthropist, was interviewed by Jonathan Foley, head of the U’s Institute on the Environment.

As the talk went from the eradication of smallpox to the science of climate change to using Google to track the next pandemic, I was thinking of Steve Lawrence, the planner for Pope County in western Minnesota. Lawrence talked last week at the U’s small towns symposium in Morris about finding a $5,000 grant to help a local florist turn his shop’s greenhouse into a lettuce-growing operation for the winter to grow produce to be eaten locally.

That was one small example of an effort in one small community to get a handle on living a life on a more sustainable scale, and that was pretty much what Brilliant was talking about.

“The lifestyle we live is not sustainable,” Brilliant said. But he declared himself an optimist, at least partly because he spent 10 years in India working on the successful elimination of smallpox and has seen what people working together can accomplish.

Among the elements of his call to action: pay attention to good science, learn to judge and communicate risk wisely, act in concert.

“The system is breaking at the seams and the fixes have to be as systemic as the problems.”

Brilliant started his career in the heady 1960s and says he feels something familiar today. “There was a feeling in the ’60s that something better was right around the corner. We didn’t have a word for it or the vocabulary. I think that movement has returned.”

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