All posts by Dr. Michael Forster

Dr. Michael Forster

“Open forum” shows that campus reorganization well underway

On the eve of President Bennett’s inaugural events, I think today’s faculty-staff open forum at the Gulf Park campus – hosted by the Academic Deans Leadership Team (ADLT) and skillfully facilitated by College of Business Dean Gilbert – showed excellent progress toward implementing the president’s decision to reorganize intercampus relationships.

Today’s focus was on reviewing currently available programs and identifying real and potential growth opportunities.  The broader context, however, concerns cultivating trust, “building bridges” to a full realization of the “one university” ideal.  This will take time, as well as a firm adherence of everyone to the ADLT values of transparency, communication, and accountability.  But we most definitely have traction.

Dr. Michael Forster

Celebrate diversity, work for justice

This morning USM School of Social Work students sponsored a “Diversity Dash” 5K run.  I was invited to make a few brief opening remarks on the significance of celebrating diversity.  Those remarks follow.

Good morning!

So – We are here to “celebrate diversity.”  But why should we celebrate human diversity, anyway?  Let’s consider a few reasons:

Because, first of all, diversity is good in itself, just as the qualities of healthiness, of rich variety, of depth and beauty, or the experiences of joy, or belonging, or accomplishment, are good in themselves.  As these good things are ends in themselves, so is human diversity an end in itself.

But diversity is also “useful”; it serves other important human and social purposes.  We know, for example, that:

In communities, diversity builds social capital – it forges connections and shared commitments, its many strands increasing the strength of the whole community.

In organizations, diversity makes for better decisions and better outcomes – decisions and outcomes reflecting alternative points of view and experience, and pointing to alternative and otherwise foreclosed possibilities.

In interpersonal relations, diversity encourages tolerance and empathy, undergirding the expansion and broadening of our caring capacity.

In politics, diversity expands democracy and the promise of equality, pushing us toward the fulfillment of the democratic project – which we all well know is “one nation…, with liberty and justice for all.”

But let’s us not delude ourselves into thinking that any of these good things are simply given.  Without a firm and sustained commitment to justice, the phrase, “celebration of diversity,” can too easily ring hollow, can too easily degenerate into banal bromide or superficial slogan.  We must never forget that the ancestors of today’s native Americans were victims of a genocidal march of conquest across the continent; or that most of the ancestors of today’s African-Americans were brought to this country in chains and condemned to slave labor; or that among the extensive diversity of our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens alive today, far too many have been and continue to be victims of exclusion, exploitation, marginalization, or oppression of one kind or another.

Diversity and justice should, therefore, indeed must therefore go hand in hand.  In the words of Rev. King, the marriage of justice and diversity turns “lip service” into “life service”; this marriage is our best, our truest, basis for celebration.  As Dr. King also said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

On this wonderful Saturday morning, then, let us dedicate ourselves simultaneously to the celebration of diversity and the struggle for social justice.

Dr. Michael Forster

Smoke and climate change “resilience” are both bad for health

I just completed a solid three days of attendance at two conferences linked only by geography – the state chapter conference of the National Association of Social Workers, which met at Biloxi’s Imperial Palace casino, and the “Race, Gender and Class” conference, sponsored by a section of the American Sociological Association, in New Orleans.

The two conference experiences prompted distinct but equally troubling health-related thoughts.  The Biloxi experience had nothing to do with conference content, but rather with location.  Despite a major push in recent years by health advocacy groups to pass smoke-free workplace legislation in Mississippi, casinos in the state remain havens of “smokers’ rights,” and you certainly know it as you move about the Imperial Palace.  The smell of cigarette smoke is everywhere and seems to cling to everything, including your clothes long after you’ve left the premises.

The New Orleans experience, on the other, was all about content.  Several presentations by university-based researchers focused on the extremely troubling health impacts of environmental degradation and climate change, with emphasis on disparate impacts related to race, gender and class.  Yet it’s clear that virtually all the attention of both policy-makers and practitioners today is on ameliorating the effects of this degradation and change; little is going to addressing underlying causes, which are largely, if not exclusively, human in origin.  Most discussion and an increasing measure of action is devoted to “impact mitigation” and “building community resilience” to climate change.

Both conference experiences prompted me to consider the madness of our current state of collective thinking and behavior, and our seeming inability to take appropriate action in response to unequivocal scientific evidence.  Despite massive and no long disputed evidence of the extreme health risks associated with second-hand smoke, we still allow thousands of workers (many of them low-income) and thousands more patrons to suck in second-hand smoke at Mississippi casinos every day.  This is an outrage, and evidence, I think, of a certain kind of behavioral madness, a species of “denialism” that revels in thumbing its nose at the data.

In like vein, an overwhelming scientific consensus has emerged to conclude that human activity is responsible for climate change, and hence all the deleterious health effects already flowing from it and expected to cascade rapidly as climate change advances.  And yet we appear incapable of acting to address the underlying cause of our troubles – an extractive economic order that is “healthy” only when it’s growing, ever increasing on a global scale the very behaviors that are threatening the essential conditions of human existence itself.

“Resilience” in response to known threats to human health and well-being is not the answer.  Resistance to the forces driving our destruction – be they personally behavioral and psychological, or collectively political and economic – is.


Dr. Michael Forster

Guess what? Policy works to promote health

Some good news – While cautious researchers wonder if the numbers will hold in the long term, it looks like obesity rates among pre-school children are coming down markedly, a good portent for the future.

More good news – The FDA is moving forward on revised food nutrition labeling, despite objections of “Big Food,” making smart selection decisions easier for consumers.  And last but not least, it’s certainly good news that new USDA regulations should make it tougher to market sugary drinks and junk food to public school kids.

One takeaway from these small signs of progress on the heath promotion front is that positive change is possible through enlightened policy.  Another, however, is that we should be doing a lot more, a lot faster.  Obesity rates across the population remain at “epidemic” levels.  So much of what is available in grocery stores is only masquerading as “food”; most of it needs elimination, not better labeling.  And why should there be any junk food marketing to our kids in schools?

The recipe for broad-based health promotion, our best protection against chronic disease, is simple – whole foods, regular exercise, and proper rest.  Either ban or tax the hell out of junk food, and subsidize the production and sale of fresh veggies and fruits.  It really ain’t rocket science (and even if it were, we know the formula for the right fuel)!

Dr. Michael Forster

Time running out to stave off human health impacts of climate change

Here’s just a bit of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (hardly a heretical or inflammatory source) says about climate change:

“Changes occurring in the world’s climate are affecting our health and wellbeing, and will have even greater impacts in the future. Although scientific understanding of the effects of climate change is still emerging, there is a pressing need to prepare for potential health risks. A wide variety of organizations (federal, state, local, multilateral, private and nongovernmental) is working to address the implications of global climate change.

“Climate change affects us by:

  • Increasing deaths and illnesses from heat stress as temperatures rise.
  • Increasing risk of injuries and illnesses due to extreme weather events, such as storms and floods.
  • Increasing respiratory and cardiovascular illness and deaths caused by smoke from heat-related and drought-related wildfires, as well as changes in air pollution, particularly ozone smog.
  • Increasing cases of allergic disease brought about by elevated levels of pollens caused by more vigorous weed growth and longer pollen seasons.
  • Changing the rates and ranges of infectious diseases carried by insects or in food and water.
  • Threatening the safety and availability of food and water supplies.
  • Inducing greater levels of mental and emotional stress in response to climate change and extreme weather-related emergencies.

“The most vulnerable among us—children, elderly people, those living in poverty, people with underlying health conditions, people living in certain geographic areas—are at increased health risk from climate change….”

Now, given the frightening prospect of severely negative health impacts related to climate change, shouldn’t we be getting our collective rear in gear to halt the behaviors most contributing to climate change?  Which is to say, simply, that we must radically scale back carbon emissions, reversing the current trajectory.  And we must do so without delay – as in right now, immediately, today – not in some hazy future when “the economy improves enough,” or new technology delivers us (anyone have the blueprint for a carbon vacuum cleaner that operates on a global scale, in their desk drawer, perhaps?) from ourselves.

Time is running out on our ability even to mitigate the worst effects of climate change on the health of homo sapiens - not to mention the 150-200 daily victims of species death already underway.