Hope, doom: Japan Prize pair poles apart

Upbeat radiologist overshadowed by dire 'Limits to Growth' author

by Barbara Bayer

The two Americans who received this year’s Japan Prize did a first by appearing afterward at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to highlight their visions — one of hope in medical breakthroughs and the other in the inevitable doom of mankind.

The prize went to professors Dennis L. Meadows, 66, author of the controversial and shocking 1972 report “Limits to Growth,” and David E. Kuhl, 79, a radiologist, for his contributions to tomographic imaging in nuclear medicine.

But whereas Kuhl, of the University of Michigan, talked of medical progress and the chance of future cures for serious diseases, Meadows, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, despite being awarded for his “contribution for a sustainable world,” warned of humankind on an unsustainable trajectory. He has forecast human demand exceeding the Earth’s supply, and doom by the end of this century.

Known as the “father of emission tomography,” Kuhl’s work has led to methods that have become indispensable for imaging the brain, heart and tumors. He spoke with great optimism about the advances and how he sees them leading to help for cancer patients and for victims of degenerative brain diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s.

“In brain disease, we’re in a great misfortune for not having as many effective treatments as we wish we had, but if more is understood about the brain and more is derived in knowledge about these diseases from neurochemical studies determined in living patients . . . there is great hope for the future.”

The determination of patterns of metabolism, enzyme decline and the distribution of poisons in the brain that may be responsible for Alzheimer’s, Kuhl explained, can help lead to new drugs being developed by pharmaceutical companies now using emission tomography to test the drugs. Using these methods and new knowledge, he said, can help eliminate those drugs that are not seen to be effective before needless investments are made.

With Alzheimer’s, “we’ve learned that the neurons and the synapses that are guarding the brain are not so severely affected when the disease is first starting its symptoms as we thought,” Kuhl said. “This gives hope that the machinery in the brain is still intact and if we only understood what was causing the brain (disorder), something could be done about it much earlier.”

New cancer research methods are also opening doors to more effective treatment, he said, noting cancers “differ individually enough that’s there hope to characterize. . . . Classification can make the treatment more personalized for the patients . . . and permit an early assessment when the treatment is failing.” This in turn can prevent months of needless treatment and provide information on alternative treatments, he pointed out.

Although Kuhl’s talk was by far the more positive one, the technical jargon and highly specialized nature left the audience at a bit of a loss as to just how to respond.

Meadows, a highly effective communicator, on the other hand, was adept at bringing his message to the laymen and monopolized the later question-and-answer session.

He opened on a light but ominous tone, one that grew, despite colorful anecdotes and analogies, ever more ominous.

“Unlike my colleague, Dr. Kuhl, whom I envy because he has been able day by day to map out progress, build on it, continue to see an advance, and talk about the wonderful things that have (occurred over) the last 50 years of research, for me, things have been going backwards since 1972,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience. “I have no possibility at all of moving ahead. There’s no satisfaction in mapping out a theoretical sustainable society if you see that the real society continues to pursue (the) wrong policy.”

Meadows then cut to the chase: “In terms of global sustainability, we’re worse off than we were 37 years ago. . . . We have to look for something else and we very quickly have to find it.”

He then turned to the global economic crisis, part of a phenomenon he believes Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff recognized, a phenomenon that has become known as a Kondratieff wave, or Supercycle.

Meadows had harsh words for those who seek the Holy Grail of growth, and for short-sighted, self-serving politicians and corporate giants. His message of doom for many was given a Japanese twist as he spoke of samurai movies, which, he said, “always feature a good samurai and a bad samurai.”

“The movie is about their interaction, and inevitably leads to a climactic battle. Ten minutes before the end of the film, there is a furious clash for about 30 seconds, with swords flailing, and you can’t really see what’s happening. And then, they pull back, and the two samurai stand there and glower at each other.

“The good one is usually hurt a bit, and you think, “Oh, no, I didn’t want him to die,” but then it is the bad samurai who falls over dead.

“It was the bad guy who was actually dead,” Meadows said to chuckles from the audience before delivering the real punch line. “That is our circumstances today. There are a lot of glowering giants that are dead and they don’t know it yet.

“Big car companies producing internal combustion engine vehicles. They’re dead. The young MBAs who earn 100 million bucks in an investment bank immediately after coming out of school. It’s finished. The illusion that the poor people of the world are going to come up to the level of the rich people. These are dead concepts.”

Meadows, 67, warned that the changes seen in Japan and elsewhere in the past years pale in comparison to what will be seen in the next 25 years.

“The politicians are treating this as an interlude. It’s a fantasy. We are moving into a period of phenomenal change,” he said, stressing that short-term sacrifices are direly needed in order to get long-term effects. “Politicians are trying to solve problems by advocating policies that caused the problems in the first place. It’s one of those dead samurai.”

Meadows said it is not the pursuit of wealth that is the problem. “The problem is that we define wealth as ‘material possession.’ There have been peoples and societies who defined wealth by the amount of wisdom one possessed, the amount of self-understanding, one’s friends, better health. These are ways we can become wealthier.

“We’re now, all of us, even though we don’t particularly care to be, in a long-term transition. We’re going to get through it one way or the other. If we look ahead and exercise choice, and are lucky, we can come through it with our basic values intact.

“If we don’t look ahead. If we’re unlucky, it’s going to be . . . really . . . a terrible time.”

The Japan Prize, given annually since 1985 to scientists from a variety of fields, includes a citation, medal and ¥50 million in cash per field.

It was the first time for a laureate to meet the press at the FCCJ, which was established in 1945. Some 75 reporters, club members and guests were on hand for the two scientists at the luncheon at the FCCJ, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.