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.


Ann Blackwell

People Who Inspire

This week I spent time reflecting on the many opportunities afforded to me as an educator to be motivated and inspired by others.  It really is quite amazing.  I have the privilege of regularly interacting with people who care deeply about the welfare of Mississippians and who choose to invest their time, energy, and expertise in work that yields a positive difference in the lives of our citizens.  They are fueled by a level of commitment that accepts nothing less than work of the highest quality and work that produces a significant impact.  We have many such people in the College of Education and Psychology at Southern Miss and throughout the state of Mississippi.  They regularly motivate and inspire me by the work they do.

My reflection was actually prompted by three individuals who made a tremendous impression on me and our Southern Miss teacher interns at a Professional Development Seminar this past Monday.  Anne Travis, CEO, The Bower Foundation; Scott Clements, Director, MDE Office of Healthy Schools; and Larry “Coach” Calhoun, fitness instructor, Clinton Public School District; presented Move to Learn to a packed audience in a fast-paced, engaging, and informational manner.  To say that these individuals entertained and inspired those in attendance is an understatement.  They quickly won the audience over with fitness activities that elicited smiles and laughter combined with convincing facts that highlighted the impact of fitness on education.  Their message and unique delivery provoked a genuine response.

The impact of these three individuals through Move to Learn and in two short years is remarkable.   What is their secret?  They care deeply about the welfare of Mississippians.  They choose to invest their time, energy, and expertise in work that yields a positive difference in the lives of others.  They are fueled by a level of commitment that accepts nothing less than work of the highest quality and work that produces a significant impact.  I find it most inspiring.

For more information on Move to Learn and its resources for educators, please visit www.movetolearnms.org.

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.


Ann Blackwell

Supporting Student Success

Years ago in one of my doctoral classes the professor introduced a video entitled “Education from a Sparrow’s Point of View.”  The class was quickly mesmerized by the speaker, Dr. John Powers, and profoundly affected by the moving portrait of a human “sparrow” that he masterfully created.  Dr. Powers used the metaphor to passionately and effectively share his belief that all students have potential.  He cautioned, however, that students often need support in order for latent potential to be fully realized.  His message remains a timely one.

I am privileged to work with colleagues in the College of Education and Psychology (CoEP) that model Dr. Powers’ beliefs.  It is what we do.  We invest time, energy, and expertise in the lives of our students, and as a result, students’ life stories are dramatically altered and improved.  As one example, data from a program offered fall semester in connection with the CoEP Student Advisement and Support Center revealed that students benefitted from weekly opportunities to interact with faculty and focus on major-specific success strategies.   In fact, 67% of student participants improved both semester and overall GPA scores.  Kudos to the faculty for their participation and support and to the students for taking full advantage of the program.  I believe Dr. Powers would be pleased.