A few years ago, I began to notice the trembling of the newspaper in my wife’s hand as she held it up to read at breakfast. Since Ruth and I were in our 60s, I took it to be a sign of aging, like the creases in my face or the arthritis in my thumbs, rather than a sign of illness. As months passed, however, the trembling grew more pronounced, and ominous, the way the quivering of leaves foretells an approaching storm. Then one morning she lowered the newspaper, pressed it firmly on the table to still her hand, and said, “I think I have Parkinson’s.”
A neurologist soon confirmed the diagnosis. Ruth and I knew several people who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, some in the late stages, their voices whittled to a whisper, their movements hindered, their balance unsure. One of them, a master carpenter, had been forced to give up his trade because he could no longer think through the sequence of measuring, cutting, fitting and fastening that his trade required. Another one, a music teacher, could no longer play the instrument she had taught to generations of children. A third acquaintance, an artist, had lost the ability to speak. So Ruth and I realized that our life together, after more than four decades of marriage, had taken an alarming turn.
As a pair of academics trained in research — Ruth in biochemistry, I in literature — we responded to the diagnosis by reading everything we could find about this neurodegenerative disease, from technical scientific papers to memoirs by people stricken with Parkinson’s. For months it was the chief topic of our conversations. We began referring to her affliction as “PD,” as though it were an unwelcome relative who had come to live in the basement and would never move out.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
We soon learned the basic facts: PD destroys neurons in the brain that produce dopamine; this damage increases over time, disrupting signals that control bodily movement; PD also interferes with the autonomic nervous system, which controls heartbeat, breathing, digestion and other vital functions; it can cause anxiety, depression and dementia; the few available therapies eventually lose their effectiveness; there is no known cure. Aside from a small percentage of cases linked to genetic mutations, the causes of PD remain obscure.
Since her diagnosis, Ruth has focused her reading on practical accounts of how to live with the disease and on reports of potential new treatments. I read about those matters as well, but I am drawn especially to research into possible causes. Tests revealed that Ruth’s DNA contains none of the modified genes associated with PD. Nor has she suffered any head trauma — such as that suffered by combat soldiers, football players and boxers — a factor that increases the likelihood of the disease fourfold. So what else might have triggered the drastic changes in her brain? And what might have triggered such damage in the brains of the estimated one million Americans and 10 million persons globally who share her condition?
While no single cause for PD has been conclusively identified, there are a number of suspects, including several types of environmental pollution common in our home state of Indiana, where Ruth has spent all but six years of her life. Compared to the general population, farm workers and others who are regularly exposed to pesticides are more than twice as likely to develop PD. Since over half the land area of Indiana is devoted to chemical-intensive farming, these poisons leach into the state’s groundwaters and rivers. Agricultural runoff, coupled with the release of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities, led an independent research group in 2014 to rate Indiana’s water quality as the worst in the nation. Indiana’s air quality is also among the nation’s worst, due in part to vehicle emissions, as in other states, but mainly to emissions from heavy industry and coal-fired power plants. Ultrafine particles from coal smoke and diesel exhaust penetrate through the nose, along the channel of the olfactory nerve and into the brain, where they cause chronic inflammation — a known factor in various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Coal smoke also carries heavy metals — lead, nickel, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, among others — all neurotoxins, which enter the body through air and water.
Although Indiana still lags most other states in environmental quality, its air and water are cleaner now than when Ruth was a child, thanks largely to federal regulations. In the era when her brain was maturing, however, pollutants were freely dumped into the atmosphere, soils and rivers. The air she breathed included lead from gasoline, a brain-damaging additive that was not phased out until 1996. In addition, as a child and young woman she inhaled secondhand tobacco smoke in public places, taking in dozens of carcinogens and hundreds of other toxic compounds. Because she grew up before fluoride was added to drinking water and toothpaste, she developed dental cavities, which were filled with an amalgam containing mercury, a neurotoxin that has been shown to vaporize slowly and spread within the body. Meanwhile, across the United States, the entire generation that grew up during the post-World War II industrial boom was exposed to tens of thousands of newly manufactured chemicals, less than five percent of which has ever been tested for its effects on human health. As that generation has aged, the rate of deaths from Parkinson’s nationwide has increased — by more than 50 percent in the past 15 years.
Illustrations by Hanna Barczyk
None of these statistics proves that Ruth’s illness, or that of any other person with PD, was caused by exposure to industrial and agricultural pollutants. The most one can claim is that such exposure significantly increases the risk of developing the disease. Knowing how much suffering Parkinson’s has inflicted on Ruth and her circle of loved ones, I am staggered to think of that suffering multiplied a million times across America and 10 million times around the world. Each year roughly 60,000 more people in the U.S. are diagnosed with PD, a number that has been steadily rising in recent decades. If changes in how we grow our food, fuel our vehicles, generate electricity and manufacture goods could reduce the incidence of PD — along with many other diseases — what keeps us from making such changes?
The answer, I believe, is that we have been conditioned to accept a narrow view of wealth. The language of value in America is overwhelmingly economic. We encounter it in advertising, editorials, political speeches, corporate reports, business news, films and television shows. We hear of every up and down in stock markets and currency exchanges, profits and losses on balance sheets, fundraising totals for political parties, sales figures for holidays, multi-million-dollar trades in pro sports, box office yields of movies, auction prices for paintings. We rarely hear of any form of wealth except what can be measured in money. We are told that the Gross Domestic Product is the best gauge for how well the economy is doing, and therefore how America is doing; the higher the GDP the better. Yet this figure merely sums up the market value of all goods and services produced in a given period, and thus includes the dollars set in motion by traffic accidents, corruption trials, bank foreclosures, school shootings, Parkinson’s disease, and every other social ill. As gauged by its effect on GDP, the opioid epidemic has been good for the economy, and so has the Iraq War.
Owners and servants of financial wealth look after their interests relentlessly, often ruthlessly. In 2017, when Congress was deciding whether to overturn or amend the Affordable Care Act, the health care industry was represented by nearly 3,000 lobbyists, hundreds of whom had previously worked as elected officials or staff members on Capitol Hill. For a single year, the cost of those lobbyists, plus direct contributions to lawmakers, totaled more than half a billion dollars. Over the past 20 years, the pharmaceutical and health products industry spent nearly $4 billion on lobbying. Similar stories could be told about the influence of Wall Street firms, the oil and gas industry, insurance companies, electric utilities, telecom services and other powerful sectors of the economy.
By tolerating grotesque inequalities of financial wealth, we are losing a sense of community, the sense that we live in a shared world, bearing responsibility for our places and for one another.
Unlike health or happiness, money can be counted, so we use it to keep score. We have been taught that people who control vast amounts of money are worthy of our attention, our respect, even our adulation. Not surprisingly, these lessons about the primacy of financial wealth pour from the mass media, think tanks, foundations, legislatures, courts and executive offices that are owned or dominated by the superrich, whose only claim to such authority is that they are more obsessed with piling up money than the rest of us.
If financial wealth is the highest good, then any constraint on the pursuit of money is bad. Therefore government regulation of business, industry, agriculture or commercial products and services must be resisted as an infringement on the free market. Human and ecological health must be sacrificed to the overriding goal of economic growth.
Consider the burning of coal. Physicians and public officials have known since the 19th century that coal smoke is toxic. In recent decades, research has shown that every stage in our use of coal — mining, transport, combustion, waste storage — poses health risks. These include black lung for miners; asthma attacks and chronic bronchitis, especially in children; neurological damage, which can begin in the womb; cardiovascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks; kidney dysfunction and various cancers, among a long list of other ailments, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. All of these ills are in addition to the acid rain resulting from the nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide in coal smoke, the release of mercury and other heavy metals into the oceans, the dangers posed by coal ash storage in earthen pits, and the heating of the atmosphere from greenhouse gases.
Given such knowledge, why haven’t governments banned the use of coal? The standard excuse was offered by Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana, in his State of the State address in January 2015: “Because low-cost energy is vital to our economy, we need an all-of-the-above energy strategy, including energy efficiency. But know this: Indiana is a pro-coal state, and we must continue to oppose the overreaching schemes of the EPA until we bring this war on coal to an end.” In short, the economy rules — and not some alternative economy but the one we currently have, the one that pollutes our air and water. To describe coal as a source of “low-cost energy” is to recognize only the price of the fuel, ignoring the cost in human suffering, medical bills, lowered life expectancy and ecological damage, as well as the cost from extreme weather events and crop losses due to climate disruption.
Although I am particularly troubled when such views are espoused by policymakers in my home state, I do not mean to single out Indiana’s former governor, or the political party to which he belongs, as uniquely misguided. I highlight this passage from Pence’s address because it was delivered on a prominent occasion, in language that would have been carefully crafted beforehand, and because it expresses a dogma widely shared by our government and business leaders: that economic growth must prevail over all other values.
Aside from human and ecological health, what else are we sacrificing in obedience to the cult of money?
We are sacrificing beauty — the beauty of unmarred landscapes, roadsides free of billboards and trash, towns and cities free of junk architecture. We are sacrificing democracy, a betrayal accelerated by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which held that political spending by corporations and other associations is a right protected under the First Amendment, thereby handing over our elections to the highest bidders. We are burdening individuals and families with overwork, which is imposed at the low end of the pay scale by the necessity of holding multiple jobs, and at the high end by coercion and greed. By tolerating grotesque inequalities of financial wealth, we are losing a sense of community, the sense that we live in a shared world, bearing responsibility for our places and for one another.
To fund tax cuts and subsidies that disproportionately benefit corporations and the rich, our legislatures are draining resources from schools, parks, libraries and other public goods. Our schools are abandoning the teaching of art and music in favor of training students to fit slots in the economy. At the same time, businesses are rushing to automate or robotize every job that can be more cheaply performed by machines, with little apparent concern for the displaced workers. The livestock industry shows even less concern for the suffering of animals, such as the hogs and calves and chickens raised in cages to provide cheap food. By treating Earth as a warehouse of raw materials for exploitation and as a dump for waste, we are driving millions of species to extinction and dramatically reducing the populations of countless other species, from songbirds to salmon.
This catalog of losses might be extended to include nearly everything of value, aside from money, that makes for human well-being. Beauty, democracy, community, families, skillful work, parks and schools, the arts and sciences, legal fairness, the social compact, nature’s abundance — these are crucial forms of wealth that do not show up on balance sheets or stock exchanges. They belong neither to individuals nor to corporations, but to our common wealth — those shared goods on which we depend, not merely for survival, but for inspiration, meaning, conviviality and happiness.
Financial wealth matters, of course, but it has more than enough advocates. It is the wealth we share that needs defenders. This common wealth includes the air we breathe, the water we drink, the streets and bridges we drive on, police and firefighters, public schools and libraries and museums, public parks and forests, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas; it includes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the body of law, our courts and system of government, along with the ideals of justice and equality. Every time we sit down to a meal, we are eating the fruits of the common wealth — the legacy of seeds and domesticated animals, the methods of cultivation and cuisine inherited from generations of farmers, breeders and cooks. On a global scale, the common wealth embraces the oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity and the human genome; it includes the cumulative body of knowledge, inventions, designs, scientific and medical discoveries and works of art; it includes the skills necessary for making everything from sourdough bread to skyscrapers; it includes stories, legends and myths, as well as language itself, the medium of our thought and speech.
We may seem to have wandered a long way from that telltale fluttering of a newspaper in Ruth’s hand. But each day’s news in print, on television and online brings further evidence that her illness is symptomatic of a much larger, indeed global, issue — the unfettered pursuit of money at the expense of human and environmental health.
On the day I began writing this essay, the newspaper Ruth was holding featured on its front page a story about a bill recently passed by the Indiana House of Representatives that would prohibit county governments from placing any constraints on mining or logging on private land. One of our local representatives authored the bill, declaring that relief from regulation would free property owners to exploit the coal, limestone and timber on their land, thus creating jobs. The fact that he owns a tree-cutting business did not influence the legislation, he insisted. He also dismissed concerns that such deregulation might endanger air quality, local streams and wetlands, the drinking water reservoir, wildlife habitat, the value of neighboring properties or the health of local residents.
Financial wealth versus common wealth: it’s a story that plays out every day, on every scale from local communities to the planet. Much of what generates profits in our economy — coal-burning, pesticide-spraying, chemical manufacturing, diesel-powered trucking — undermines rather than supports our well-being. The 19th-century English social reformer John Ruskin coined the term “illth” to denote the harmful effects of large financial holdings and money-seeking pursuits that cause “various devastation and trouble around them in all directions.” We need to make illth part of how we speak and think about economics. The word is unpleasant to say, but then it points to unpleasant things — children dying from asthma attacks in smog-bound cities; Appalachian mountaintops and streams destroyed for the mining of cheap coal; the 40 acres of U.S. farmland lost to development each hour; the more than 30,000 deaths in America each year from the products of the gun industry; radioactive waste that will remain lethal for a quarter of a million years.
We are born into a world filled with riches that benefit everyone but that no one owns. Without defenders, these treasures can easily succumb to neglect, to malicious assault or to mercenary raids. Yet they are the riches that constitute our true wealth. Trace the word “wealth” to its origins, and one finds that its root meaning is “that which makes for well-being.” The root of the word “health” also gave rise to “hale,” “holy” and “whole.” True wealth is whatever supports our health, our wholeness, the flourishing of body and mind.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, Ruth is managing her illness well. She sings in two choruses, makes dazzling quilts, helps build Habitat for Humanity houses, zips through math and crossword puzzles and nurtures our vegetable garden, houseplants and grandchildren. How long she will be able to continue those activities, we can’t predict. Parkinson’s continues its assault. As the months pass, aches spread through her muscles and joints. She trembles when the medicine wears off. She has to clear her throat before she speaks. Wary of falling, she takes shorter steps. Whenever we walk together, she holds my arm, as she did on our first date half a century ago — only now she needs the support, and I’m glad to give it.
Scott Russell Sanders is a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University and the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Bloomington, Indiana.