Scurvy and What it Can Tell Us About Opposition to Climate Change & Renewable Energy

By Paul Gipe

Just Because a Better Mousetrap is Known Doesn’t Mean it will be Used When There’s a Vested Financial Interest in the Status Quo

What does Scurvy have to do with the opposition to climate change and the rapid introduction of massive amounts of renewable energy? Quite a bit really.

It’s odd those associations we make. After reading a passage about stromrebellen (electricity rebels) in a book by a German theologian, I was drawn to the small Black Forest town of Schönau and their remarkable rebellion against nuclear power and their local utility.

The same occurred when I picked up the fascinating book Food in History Reay Tannahill. Originally published in 1973 the book became a best seller and if you ever come across it you’ll know why. This is one of two articles drawn from Tannahill’s exciting romp through culinary history.

Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” The tragic story of scurvy epitomizes Sinclair’s observation.

We know now that scurvy was the result of vitamin C deficiency. But we in the West knew how to treat scurvy long before we knew what caused it.

Tannahill notes that Chinese sailors had learned how to beat scurvy through empirical means at least by the 5th century. This knowledge was transferred, as we say now, to the Dutch in southeast Asia many centuries later.

From the Dutch this knowledge must have travelled to other maritime powers. Tannahill cites a record of an English fleet from the East India Company off the coast of Madagascar in 1601 gathering oranges and lemons “which is the best remedy against scurvy.”

That should have been the end of it. Scurvy was treatable and people knew how to treat it.

Alas, that wasn’t the end of the story, not by far. Ship owners had a different take.

Citrus fruit was expensive before the days of air freight and there was no way of growing enough green herbs on board sailing ships to feed the crew wrote Tannahill.

What Tannahill says next is chilling. Ship owners argued that scurvy was not caused by enough fresh food but, instead, by too much salt. And since salting food was the only way of preserving food in that day, there was nothing that could be done. Like maritime Pontius Pilates, they washed their hands of concern. Thus, scurvy was a fact of life for mariners long after we knew how to treat it. You signed on, scurvy was one of the consequences.

For 200 years after knowledge of how to avoid scurvy was known in the West, sailors died by the thousands as ship owners and the navies of the great powers searched for cheaper and more convenient solutions than simply feeding their crews citrus.

It wasn’t until the British Admiralty, in Tannahill’s retelling, at the end of the 18th century finally decided to take action. It was significant that the British Navy was losing more men to scurvy than they were to combat. Remember, this was the time when British colonists were becoming rebellious. It was then that the Admiralty issued a daily ration of lemon juice for its crews after six weeks at sea. The lemon juice was issued along with a ration of rum from its plantations in the Caribbean.

In the mid-19th century lime juice was substituted for lemon juice and British sailors have been called “limey’s” ever since.

The history of scurvy and its treatment is a parable for our times. Those who believe that reason alone is sufficient to convince those with a financial stake in the status quo to change course—regardless of the topic—fail to understand human nature and the resistance to change.

We believe what we want to believe as George Lakoff explains in “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”. We accept and believe what fits within our “frame” of reference or view of the world. If it doesn’t fit, there’s cognitive dissonance and we dismiss the information, just as ship owners in the 17th century didn’t want to believe scurvy was treatable. If they had, they had at least a moral obligation to do something about it.

In 2013, the situation is worse than in the 17th century. Why so? Because today, more than 100 years after the American invention of propaganda to sell more soap, we can turn our skills to the mass inoculation of the public against scientific facts. That we can do so and fend off attempts to use science to avoid disease or treat disease when it has been found is amply proven by the success of the tobacco industry.

The smoking gun is the thousands of pages of communications documenting the criminal collusion among tobacco industry executives, their lawyers, and their hired propagandists to sow doubt about the science. Just as ship owners in the 17th century sowed doubt about the cause of scurvy, tobacco lobbyists sowed doubt about the cause of lung cancer.

We now know the entire process as the professional, for-hire creation of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) as the tobacco lobbyists described it themselves.

Imagine what the professional purveyors of doubt would do with a disease like scurvy in the day of blogs and Facebook. Despite widespread knowledge that citrus cured scurvy, no one knew why. We could expect a whole host of “skeptics” to chime in with alternative views that scurvy was not in fact cured by citrus, that citrus juice tasted terrible, that it in fact was a poison, that feeding seaman citrus juice was a license to torture seamen for no “proven” good.

So here we are in the 21st century where a vested interest creates a sophisticated propaganda machine to spin a web of half truths, lies, and innuendo to create Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about climate change and renewable energy.

As the Guardian’s exposé reveals, rightwing billionaires from the fossil fuel industry have poured millions into propaganda mills thinly disguised as “think tanks” churning out reports, articles, blogs, and commentary questioning climate change and the role that renewables could play in addressing it.

As Tannahill noted, ship owners came up with their own, self-interested explanation for scurvy and an expedient solution—do nothing. The more one thinks about it the more it sounds like the current debate in North America about climate change the actions needed to address it—massive amounts of renewable energy. The fossil fuel industry and the billionaires who back it want us to do nothing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take two centuries to resolve the impasse.

Food in History by Reay Tannahill, Broadway; Revised edition (May 10, 1995) 1973, 448 pages, ISBN-10: 0517884046, ISBN-13: 978-0517884041, 6 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches, The Seaman’s Disease pp. 226-228.