"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Thursday 31 January 2013

Awakening Our True Potential

Awakening Our True Potential

By Richard Smoley

Man is born an unfinished creature. He cannot walk or talk or feed himself. Long years of care are required to bring him to even the most minimal levels of self-sufficiency.

And yet even after the typical person has reached the stage of functioning that we call adulthood, something still seems to be missing. In a sense, of course, something will always be missing; there are always new horizons to discover and new skills to attain. But the lack may go further. There is a sense in which even the mature human being is incomplete. The Freemasons allude to this when they speak of the candidate for initiation as a “rough ashlar.” An ashlar is a block of stone; in its rough state it fits only approximately into its intended setting. Some kind of process is needed to adjust and polish it so that it is perfectly suited to its function.

Some may balk at this description – are we, after all, nothing more than raw materials to be sent down some assembly line to be made into identical pieces of manufactured goods? That is the kind of transformation society as a whole seems to envisage. And we would do well to mistrust it. The process to which the Masonic initiations allude has something more than mere conformity as its goal; it is not a matter of circus horses trying to break themselves in. It is the opposite: it is a matter of having access to our own potential, developing it, and offering to the service of higher aims.

This process has been discussed often, sometimes (as in Masonry) allegorically, sometimes in more straightforward terms. But even so it has rarely been presented in a reasonably honest and lucid way. Most of the time, developing human potential is portrayed as a kind of hypertrophy – the exaggerated development of certain functions at the expense of others.

Recently I read a magazine profile of a prominent Oxford philosopher. He had written a fourteen-hundred-page treatise on moral philosophy, in which he had examined and refuted all possible criticisms and objections to his thesis. Yet the article said he wore the same clothes each day (white shirt, black trousers) and did not like to look at any building that was not adorned with columns. His capacity for human interaction sounded rather primitive. In the end I was left with the impression of a gigantic cerebrum attached to a vestigial body.

Is this what is meant by developing our human potential? For many people it is. The abstracted philosopher is only one specimen. Others are the athlete who is nothing more than his sport, the painter who can do nothing more than paint. Some of the greatest achievements of the human race have been attained by such people. But the overdevelopment of talents can and does turn into a Faustian bargain. Breakdowns, crises, and collapses seem to dog these individuals. We may envy their achievements, but their fragility warns us against imitating them.

The same holds true for abilities that are considered paranormal. Although science does not care to admit it, it is possible to develop psychic powers such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis. Indeed, in his forthcoming book The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities, Russell Targ, one of the leading parapsychologists in the US, argues that anyone with a certain amount of (not very difficult) training can develop these skills. Nevertheless, overemphasis on these abilities, no matter how miraculous they may seem, creates problems as well. Psychics, clairvoyants, visionaries, and healers frequently seem imbalanced, having developed one skill or power at the expense of the whole.

That is why I would like to suggest a slightly different model of developing human potential, one that is not designed to serve the interests of society (or business or political powers) at the individual’s own expense, but also one that avoids the trap of hypertrophy of a single area. Hence it begins with the crucial need for balance.

There are many models of the human mind, all of them insightful to a certain degree and all of them to a certain degree incomplete. One of the oldest and simplest sees the human makeup in terms of the body, the emotions, and the mind. We have already seen how some people are underdeveloped in one way or another. Even if we set aside extreme cases, esoteric teachings suggest that this is basically true of everyone. While it’s often easy enough to see someone else’s imbalances, it may not be so easy to see one’s own.

Gurdjieff’s Three Types of Humanity


The great twentieth-century spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff divided the ordinary run of humanity into three types: man number 1, who is orientated toward the body; man number 2, who is centred in his emotions; and man number 3, who sees the world through the intellect. Moreover, Gurdjieff contended, human beings pass their lives in a kind of waking sleep – a low-grade trance populated by illusions and daydreams. These facts are all connected. Our sleep in ordinary life is characterised by the fact that we are overbalanced in one or another of these directions and fail to use the intelligence of the other parts of the mind.

This, then, is the first step toward awakening human potential: to see what type of individual you are, because this shapes how you conceive of the world. Man number 1 is often of a highly practical turn; he can fix anything but may not have the dimmest idea of how to express his emotions, and may not even know what emotions he is having. Man number 2, by contrast, sees everything through his feelings. Artistic types (whether or not they have any real artistic talent) are a prime example; everything is emotion, everything is drama. Man number 3 sees life as a series of intellectual problems. He may be able to discuss philosophical issues brilliantly or add up long rows of figures in his head, but may, as James Joyce remarked of one of his characters, live a short distance from his body. (The Oxford philosopher I have mentioned would be an example of man number 3.)

In all probability you are one of these three types. The first task in awakening human potential is, as the ancient motto said, to “know thyself,” and in a very fundamental sense this means knowing what type you are. One way of exploring this question is by looking at your leisure activities: what do you do with your free time? Are you compulsively active, running from sport to sport or task to task? Do you enjoy spending your time in pleasant fantasies of happier times past or present? Or would you rather curl up with a good book? Leisure activities are important cues because they are not compulsory; you are doing these things because you like them.

Of course, work life offers its own share of data. Your profession is often based on type, even in cases where you are not doing the kind of work you want to do. You may think you are really an artist or writer but somehow you have found work as a plumber, and the work comes as second nature to you. You keep at it not because you like it but because it comes easily to you. Despite what he may think about himself, a person like this is probably man number 1.

Very few people are pure examples of any given type; we tend to be admixtures, with bundles of strengths and weaknesses, with skills and affinities that harmonise or conflict in any number of ways. Consequently it is not a matter of simply typing yourself as you might do when taking a test out of a magazine. Knowing yourself is a lifelong course of study.

Furthermore, self-knowledge is not a static process. There is a type of individual who is self-conscious to an extreme degree and can see her strengths and faults with remarkable clarity but is utterly unable to do anything about them. Consequently the next step in developing human potential is trying to consciously balance ourselves, strengthening the weaker aspects of our natures and making sure the stronger ones do not overpower the others. This is one meaning of Christ’s parable of the “evil servant,” who, when his master is away, “shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken” (Matt. 24:45-49).

Balancing the Different Aspects of Yourself


Strengthening your weaker functions is never a pleasant task. Inevitably it involves giving time and energy to things you do not like. The intellectual must take up Tai Chi or learn carpentry; the artist must manage financial accounts; the athlete needs to paint pictures or write poetry. Because these are the things we do not like to do, we often find them unpleasant and humiliating, and it is a rare person who has the discipline to persist on his own.

Speaking personally, when I was a high-school student, I realised that my connection to my body was not all that it could be, so I took the somewhat extreme step of attempting ballet. But the rigorous discipline ballet demands of the body was too much for me; I lost interest in it and dropped it after two or three classes. Only years later, as a result of involvement with esoteric disciplines, was I able to work on a more conscious connection with the body through various movements and exercises. But I never took up ballet again.

Another one of my experiences, at an esoteric school in the north of England, casts further light on the sort of work required. The school was moving into a new centre, and a great deal of remodelling was needed. I was there for a residential course, and I was given the job of cutting wall-to-wall carpeting for one of the rooms. I was utterly hopeless at this task. I could not cut the carpet straight; I kept hacking at it and making a mess of it until I was relieved and someone was given the job who was able to carry it out in short order.

Why was the job given to me first? Not because anyone was under any illusions about my skills at laying carpet. Rather it was to show me something about myself, so that, by struggling with an unfamiliar task, I could see where some of my limitations lay. And in fact to this day as a homeowner, I find it a challenge to do the types of household repairs that other men do without trouble and sometimes with pleasure.

As this story suggests, it’s comparatively rare to even out one’s own imbalances completely. If you were really to do so, it would probably take a life’s work, and a life’s work cannot consist entirely of remedying imbalances. Nor is that the ultimate goal. Becoming a well-rounded person is a worthwhile aim, but from a spiritual point of view it still falls short of fulfilling the true potential that every human being possesses. What is this potential?

The student becomes aware of it little by little in the course of struggling with his imbalances. In the first place, he learns to become free from the roles he has identified with in the past. A man thinks, “I’m not a handyman,” but if he has to carry out some task of repair he learns that this is a limitation. His identification with whatever roles he has traditionally clung to – thinker or artist – impedes him in other areas of life. In this way he learns to become free of roles – or at any rate he is a little bit more suspicious of his own tendency to identify with them.

This seemingly small step actually marks a crucial point of transition, because it frees up an initially tiny amount of will and attention that had been completely fixed in identification. In short, the student learns that there is an “I” that is separate from, and free from, all the things he has identified with up to this point.

I have spoken of this development taking place in the context of an esoteric school, and while there are not a huge number of these in the world, there are still a fair number. The ones I have encountered range across traditions: Gurdjieffian, Buddhist, Sufi, Qabalistic. Each has its own peculiar orientation, but the general type of training is the same – and in the beginning consists of the kind of work I have been talking about here. The question then arises, is a school necessary? Can you do this work all on your own?

Generally speaking, no. You did not learn how to speak English alone; you did not learn math or cooking or carpentry or whatever life skills you have on your own. Almost always there was some instruction, and usually some instructor, behind your training. You can teach yourself how to do some things, but these are the exceptions in life. Human beings need each other for many reasons, and one of them is learning.

While it’s true that people can and do undergo spontaneous moments of awakening that illuminate their being past all previous limitations and preconceptions, these are rare cases, and you can’t count on being one of them. If it has happened to you, you are fortunate. Even so, such moments of awakening are, for many people, mere glimpses intended to motivate them to undertake the hard, slogging work that I have been talking about here.

In any event, at some point in one’s development, something starts to crystallise. And this something consists precisely of the small amount of will and attention that I spoke about earlier. An aspect of the mind begins to awaken and can see that it is not its roles, its tasks, or even its thoughts and feelings and emotions, but can step back and look at them almost as if they belonged to someone else. This is the true “I,” or at any rate the seed of the true “I.”


Ultimate Key to Human Potential: The True “I”

Remember that Christ in the Gospels often speaks of the kingdom of heaven as a seed. The metaphor is apt on more than one level. As the parable says, the sower sows seeds on all kinds of ground. That is, everyone has this seed of the true “I” – somewhere inside of you there is a Self that stands back and can witness, impartially but compassionately, all the doings of your life like a film. But most people take this for granted. They do not see it as important and they do not bother to develop it. To use the language of the parable again, the seeds fall on stony ground or the birds of the air eat them up.

But this Self, this true “I,” is the ultimate key to human potential. Almost all of the parables in the Gospels speak of it in one way or another. It is the pearl of great price; it is the treasure buried in a field that a man sells all he has to buy; it is the light “that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Everyone has this and can never lose it; it is immortal and indestructible; indeed it is the only thing about us that is genuinely immortal – everything else will pass away. But you can make contact with it and make it develop and grow or you can neglect it, as the majority of people do and have done throughout the course of history.

The choice is yours – now. Up to this point in your life you may not have been aware that you had this “I” within you or had the chance to develop it. You may have had the dim sense of something missing, or you may have had a vague longing of a journey that you have wanted to take without knowing where or why. This is the journey that you have wanted to take. If you were not aware of it before you read this article, you are aware of it now. And like the man in Christ’s parable of the treasure hidden in the field, you will either go out and sell all you have to buy it (figuratively speaking), or you will ignore it and return to the sleep of ordinary life.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all else will be added unto you.” This true “I” is what the Gospels call the “kingdom of heaven.” If you have it – that is, if you are aware that you have it – the rest of life begins to fall into place, naturally and as it were spontaneously. This does not, of course, mean that life automatically becomes easy. It does mean that you become increasingly able to value things rightly. Money, possessions, status become progressively less important. You don’t need to become an ascetic and cast all these things away. You do need to put them in perspective and see that while they have instrumental value, they do not have ultimate value.

This teaching of the true “I” extends far beyond even esoteric Christianity. The sacred Hindu texts known as the Upanishads speak of it frequently. Here is one example:

“Verily… that Imperishable is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood Understander. Other than It there is naught that sees. Other than It there is naught that hears. Other than It there is naught that thinks. Other than It there is naught that understands. Across this Imperishable… is space woven, warp and woof”
-         (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.8.10).

The Gospels speak of this “unseen Seer,” also known as “the kingdom of heaven,” as a seed. A seed is not a fully developed plant. Similarly, this sense of “I” above and apart from our ordinary thoughts and feelings is also undeveloped when we first come across it. It is developed by further work, and even at a fairly early stage it becomes obvious what this work is. I’m tempted to use words here such as love and compassion, but what I am getting at goes far beyond even these characteristics. To put it as simply as possible, it involves a further insight: that this “I” that exists at the core of my being also exists at the core of all other beings, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. It is very hard in ordinary language to express the idea that what is most essentially myself is precisely that which I have in common with all others, but this is exactly the case.

Most spiritual traditions speak of a dual path that they characterise as wisdom and compassion or of knowledge and love. While these two potencies may appear at first to be separate, in fact as a student progresses they seem more and more to converge. There is a first level of awakening – to become conscious of the true “I.” The second level is to understand how vast and all-pervasive it is and that so far from cutting us off from others, it is precisely what unites us with them. In this way individual consciousness becomes universal consciousness.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that psychic powers are comparatively easy to develop. So they are. But if they are developed independently of the greater growth that I am speaking of here, they risk becoming a trap. (Practically all the great spiritual traditions warn of this.) By contrast, if we work to grow the seed of the individual consciousness into the greater consciousness that embraces all of us, paranormal powers come more or less naturally. You will not necessarily find that you can read minds or predict the future at will, but you probably will find that you know what you need to know when you need to know it – sometimes in ordinary ways, sometimes in ways that are quite startling.

I have tried, in an extremely brief way, to sketch out some of the key aspects of developing human potential. Of necessity this description will seem somewhat linear. You start as a novice; you experience certain types of insight or awakening; and gradually these insights become more stable and present in your day-to-day life. In a sense this is all true. But the path – if it is right to call it a path – is more circuitous than this. Doubts come after awakening; fear closes in again after times of great opening. More than once it will seem as if all the gains of years of effort have suddenly evaporated. I do not know how to avoid this problem – if it can be avoided. I do know that when one picks up again, after however long a time, the knowledge and faith that one had before reasserts itself, and the long, laborious work of transformation can recommence. As one of Gurdjieff’s pupils once observed, “No conscious effort is ever lost.”

RICHARD SMOLEY has over thirty years of experience studying and practicing esoteric spirituality. His books include Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Jay Kinney); The Essential Nostradamus; Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism; and Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. He is editor of Quest Books and Quest magazine, both published by the Theosophical Society in America. His website is www.innerchristianity.com.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 129 (November-December 2011).

© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
For the New Dawn reproduction notice, click here.

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Tuesday 29 January 2013

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead

America's Real Criminal Element: Lead


New research finds lead (Pb) is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing.


lead and crime

When Rudy Giuliani ran for mayor of New York City in 1993, he campaigned on a platform of bringing down crime and making the city safe again. It was a comfortable position for a former federal prosecutor with a tough-guy image, but it was more than mere posturing. Since 1960, rape rates had nearly quadrupled, murder had quintupled, and robbery had grown fourteenfold. New Yorkers felt like they lived in a city under siege.

Throughout the campaign, Giuliani embraced a theory of crime fighting called "broken windows," popularized a decade earlier by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in an influential article in The Atlantic. "If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired," they observed, "all the rest of the windows will soon be broken." So too, tolerance of small crimes would create a vicious cycle ending with entire neighborhoods turning into war zones. But if you cracked down on small crimes, bigger crimes would drop as well.

Giuliani won the election, and he made good on his crime-fighting promises by selecting Boston police chief Bill Bratton as the NYPD's new commissioner. Bratton had made his reputation as head of the New York City Transit Police, where he aggressively applied broken-windows policing to turnstile jumpers and vagrants in subway stations. With Giuliani's eager support, he began applying the same lessons to the entire city, going after panhandlers, drunks, drug pushers, and the city's hated squeegee men. And more: He decentralized police operations and gave precinct commanders more control, keeping them accountable with a pioneering system called CompStat that tracked crime hot spots in real time.
The results were dramatic. In 1996, the New York Times reported that crime had plunged for the third straight year, the sharpest drop since the end of Prohibition. Since 1993, rape rates had dropped 17 percent, assault 27 percent, robbery 42 percent, and murder an astonishing 49 percent. Giuliani was on his way to becoming America's Mayor and Bratton was on the cover of Time. It was a remarkable public policy victory.

But even more remarkable is what happened next. Shortly after Bratton's star turn, political scientist John DiIulio warned that the echo of the baby boom would soon produce a demographic bulge of millions of young males that he famously dubbed "juvenile super-predators." Other criminologists nodded along. But even though the demographic bulge came right on schedule, crime continued to drop. And drop. And drop. By 2010, violent crime rates in New York City had plunged 75 percent from their peak in the early '90s.

All in all, it seemed to be a story with a happy ending, a triumph for Wilson and Kelling's theory and Giuliani and Bratton's practice. And yet, doubts remained. For one thing, violent crime actually peaked in New York City in 1990, four years before the Giuliani-Bratton era. By the time they took office, it had already dropped 12 percent.


The PB Effect



What happens when you expose a generation of kids to high lead levels? Crime and teen pregnancy data two decades later tell a startling story.


Second, and far more puzzling, it's not just New York that has seen a big drop in crime. In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early '90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline. Washington, DC, didn't have either Giuliani or Bratton, but its violent crime rate has dropped 58 percent since its peak. Dallas' has fallen 70 percent. Newark: 74 percent. Los Angeles: 78 percent.

There must be more going on here than just a change in policing tactics in one city. But what?

There are, it turns out, plenty of theories. When I started research for this story, I worked my way through a pair of thick criminology tomes. One chapter regaled me with the "exciting possibility" that it's mostly a matter of economics: Crime goes down when the economy is booming and goes up when it's in a slump. Unfortunately, the theory doesn't seem to hold water—for example, crime rates have continued to drop recently despite our prolonged downturn.

Another chapter suggested that crime drops in big cities were mostly a reflection of the crack epidemic of the '80s finally burning itself out. A trio of authors identified three major "drug eras" in New York City, the first dominated by heroin, which produced limited violence, and the second by crack, which generated spectacular levels of it. In the early '90s, these researchers proposed, the children of CrackGen switched to marijuana, choosing a less violent and more law-abiding lifestyle. As they did, crime rates in New York and other cities went down.

Another chapter told a story of demographics: As the number of young men increases, so does crime. Unfortunately for this theory, the number of young men increased during the '90s, but crime dropped anyway.

There were chapters in my tomes on the effect of prison expansion. On guns and gun control. On family. On race. On parole and probation. On the raw number of police officers. It seemed as if everyone had a pet theory. In 1999, economist Steven Levitt, later famous as the coauthor of Freakonomics, teamed up with John Donohue to suggest that crime dropped because of Roe v. Wade; legalized abortion, they argued, led to fewer unwanted babies, which meant fewer maladjusted and violent young men two decades later.

But there's a problem common to all of these theories: It's hard to tease out actual proof. Maybe the end of the crack epidemic contributed to a decline in inner-city crime, but then again, maybe it was really the effect of increased incarceration, more cops on the beat, broken-windows policing, and a rise in abortion rates 20 years earlier. After all, they all happened at the same time.

To address this problem, the field of econometrics gives researchers an enormous toolbox of sophisticated statistical techniques. But, notes statistician and conservative commentator Jim Manzi in his recent book Uncontrolled, econometrics consistently fails to explain most of the variation in crime rates. After reviewing 122 known field tests, Manzi found that only 20 percent demonstrated positive results for specific crime-fighting strategies, and none of those positive results were replicated in follow-up studies.


Did Lead Make You Dumber?

Even low levels have a significant effect.


So we're back to square one. More prisons might help control crime, more cops might help, and better policing might help. But the evidence is thin for any of these as the main cause. What are we missing?

Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind? Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it's everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and the fall of crime in the '90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule.

A molecule? That sounds crazy. What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime?

Well, here's one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4.

In 1994, Rick Nevin was a consultant working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on the costs and benefits of removing lead paint from old houses. This has been a topic of intense study because of the growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

But as Nevin was working on that assignment, his client suggested they might be missing something. A recent study had suggested a link between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency later on. Maybe reducing lead exposure had an effect on violent crime too?

That tip took Nevin in a different direction. The biggest source of lead in the postwar era, it turns out, wasn't paint. It was leaded gasoline. And if you chart the rise and fall of atmospheric lead caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, you get a pretty simple upside-down U: Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period. Then, as unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted.

Gasoline lead may explain as much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

Intriguingly, violent crime rates followed the same upside-down U pattern. The only thing different was the time period: Crime rates rose dramatically in the '60s through the '80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early '90s. The two curves looked eerily identical, but were offset by about 20 years.

So Nevin dove in further, digging up detailed data on lead emissions and crime rates to see if the similarity of the curves was as good as it seemed. It turned out to be even better: In a 2000 paper (PDF) he concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the '40s and '50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

And with that we have our molecule: tetraethyl lead, the gasoline additive invented by General Motors in the 1920s to prevent knocking and pinging in high-performance engines. As auto sales boomed after World War II, and drivers in powerful new cars increasingly asked service station attendants to "fill 'er up with ethyl," they were unwittingly creating a crime wave two decades later.

It was an exciting conjecture, and it prompted an immediate wave of…nothing. Nevin's paper was almost completely ignored, and in one sense it's easy to see why—Nevin is an economist, not a criminologist, and his paper was published in Environmental Research, not a journal with a big readership in the criminology community. What's more, a single correlation between two curves isn't all that impressive, econometrically speaking. Sales of vinyl LPs rose in the postwar period too, and then declined in the '80s and '90s. Lots of things follow a pattern like that. So no matter how good the fit, if you only have a single correlation it might just be a coincidence. You need to do something more to establish causality.

As it turns out, however, a few hundred miles north someone was doing just that. In the late '90s, Jessica Wolpaw Reyes was a graduate student at Harvard casting around for a dissertation topic that eventually became a study she published in 2007 as a public health policy professor at Amherst. "I learned about lead because I was pregnant and living in old housing in Harvard Square," she told me, and after attending a talk where future Freakonomics star Levitt outlined his abortion/crime theory, she started thinking about lead and crime. Although the association seemed plausible, she wanted to find out whether increased lead exposure caused increases in crime. But how?

In states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime declined slowly. Where it declined quickly, crime declined quickly.

The answer, it turned out, involved "several months of cold calling" to find lead emissions data at the state level. During the '70s and '80s, the introduction of the catalytic converter, combined with increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency rules, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline used in America, but Reyes discovered that this reduction wasn't uniform. In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states, and this gave Reyes the opening she needed. If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you'd expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that's exactly what she found.

Meanwhile, Nevin had kept busy as well, and in 2007 he published a new paper looking at crime trends around the world (PDF). This way, he could make sure the close match he'd found between the lead curve and the crime curve wasn't just a coincidence. Sure, maybe the real culprit in the United States was something else happening at the exact same time, but what are the odds of that same something happening at several different times in several different countries?

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn't fit the theory. "No," he replied. "Not one."

Just this year, Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke published a paper with demographer Sammy Zahran on the correlation of lead and crime at the city level. They studied six US cities that had both good crime data and good lead data going back to the '50s, and they found a good fit in every single one. In fact, Mielke has even studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and shared his maps with the local police. "When they overlay them with crime maps," he told me, "they realize they match up."


Location, Location, Location



In New Orleans, lead levels can vary dramatically from one neighborhood to the next—and the poorest neighborhoods tend to be the worst hit.


Maps by Karen Minot

Put all this together and you have an astonishing body of evidence. We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.

When differences of atmospheric lead density between big and small cities largely went away, so did the difference in murder rates.

Like many good theories, the gasoline lead hypothesis helps explain some things we might not have realized even needed explaining. For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. We're so used to this that it seems unsurprising, but Nevin points out that it might actually have a surprising explanation—because big cities have lots of cars in a small area, they also had high densities of atmospheric lead during the postwar era. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn't an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all.

The gasoline lead story has another virtue too: It's the only hypothesis that persuasively explains both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and its fall beginning in the '90s. Two other theories—the baby boom demographic bulge and the drug explosion of the '60s—at least have the potential to explain both, but neither one fully fits the known data. Only gasoline lead, with its dramatic rise and fall following World War II, can explain the equally dramatic rise and fall in violent crime.

If econometric studies were all there were to the story of lead, you'd be justified in remaining skeptical no matter how good the statistics look. Even when researchers do their best—controlling for economic growth, welfare payments, race, income, education level, and everything else they can think of—it's always possible that something they haven't thought of is still lurking in the background.

But there's another reason to take the lead hypothesis seriously, and it might be the most compelling one of all: Neurological research is demonstrating that lead's effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought. For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 μg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage. The EPA now says flatly that there is "no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood," and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.

But we now know that lead's effects go far beyond just IQ. Not only does lead promote apoptosis, or cell death, in the brain, but the element is also chemically similar to calcium. When it settles in cerebral tissue, it prevents calcium ions from doing their job, something that causes physical damage to the developing brain that persists into adulthood.

Only in the last few years have we begun to understand exactly what effects this has. A team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati has been following a group of 300 children for more than 30 years and recently performed a series of MRI scans that highlighted the neurological differences between subjects who had high and low exposure to lead during early childhood.

High childhood exposure damages a part of the brain linked to aggression control and "executive functions." And the impact turns out to be greater among boys.

One set of scans found that lead exposure is linked to production of the brain's white matter—primarily a substance called myelin, which forms an insulating sheath around the connections between neurons. Lead exposure degrades both the formation and structure of myelin, and when this happens, says Kim Dietrich, one of the leaders of the imaging studies, "neurons are not communicating effectively." Put simply, the network connections within the brain become both slower and less coordinated.

A second study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call "executive functions": emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. One way to understand this, says Kim Cecil, another member of the Cincinnati team, is that lead affects precisely the areas of the brain "that make us most human."

So lead is a double whammy: It impairs specific parts of the brain responsible for executive functions and it impairs the communication channels between these parts of the brain. For children like the ones in the Cincinnati study, who were mostly inner-city kids with plenty of strikes against them already, lead exposure was, in Cecil's words, an "additional kick in the gut." And one more thing: Although both sexes are affected by lead, the neurological impact turns out to be greater among boys than girls.

Other recent studies link even minuscule blood lead levels with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Even at concentrations well below those usually considered safe—levels still common today—lead increases the odds of kids developing ADHD.

In other words, as Reyes summarized the evidence in her paper, even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggressivity, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you've practically defined the profile of a violent young offender.

Needless to say, not every child exposed to lead is destined for a life of crime. Everyone over the age of 40 was probably exposed to too much lead during childhood, and most of us suffered nothing more than a few points of IQ loss. But there were plenty of kids already on the margin, and millions of those kids were pushed over the edge from being merely slow or disruptive to becoming part of a nationwide epidemic of violent crime. Once you understand that, it all becomes blindingly obvious. Of course massive lead exposure among children of the postwar era led to larger numbers of violent criminals in the '60s and beyond. And of course when that lead was removed in the '70s and '80s, the children of that generation lost those artificially heightened violent tendencies.

Police chiefs "want to think what they do on a daily basis matters," says a public health expert. "And it does." But maybe not as much as they think.

But if all of this solves one mystery, it shines a high-powered klieg light on another: Why has the lead/crime connection been almost completely ignored in the criminology community? In the two big books I mentioned earlier, one has no mention of lead at all and the other has a grand total of two passing references. Nevin calls it "exasperating" that crime researchers haven't seriously engaged with lead, and Reyes told me that although the public health community was interested in her paper, criminologists have largely been AWOL. When I asked Sammy Zahran about the reaction to his paper with Howard Mielke on correlations between lead and crime at the city level, he just sighed. "I don't think criminologists have even read it," he said. All of this jibes with my own reporting.

Before he died last year, James Q. Wilson—father of the broken-windows theory, and the dean of the criminology community—had begun to accept that lead probably played a meaningful role in the crime drop of the '90s. But he was apparently an outlier. None of the criminology experts I contacted showed any interest in the lead hypothesis at all.

Why not? Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied promising methods of controlling crime, suggests that because criminologists are basically sociologists, they look for sociological explanations, not medical ones. My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the '60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.

More generally, we all have a deep stake in affirming the power of deliberate human action. When Reyes once presented her results to a conference of police chiefs, it was, unsurprisingly, a tough sell. "They want to think that what they do on a daily basis matters," she says. "And it does." But it may not matter as much as they think.  

So is this all just an interesting history lesson? After all, leaded gasoline has been banned since 1996, so even if it had a major impact on violent crime during the 20th century, there's nothing more to be done on that front. Right?

Wrong. As it turns out, tetraethyl lead is like a zombie that refuses to die. Our cars may be lead-free today, but they spent more than 50 years spewing lead from their tailpipes, and all that lead had to go somewhere. And it did: It settled permanently into the soil that we walk on, grow our food in, and let our kids play around.

That's especially true in the inner cores of big cities, which had the highest density of automobile traffic. Mielke has been studying lead in soil for years, focusing most of his attention on his hometown of New Orleans, and he's measured 10 separate census tracts there with lead levels over 1,000 parts per million.

To get a sense of what this means, you have to look at how soil levels of lead typically correlate with blood levels, which are what really matter. Mielke has studied this in New Orleans, and it turns out that the numbers go up very fast even at low levels. Children who live in neighborhoods with a soil level of 100 ppm have average blood lead concentrations of 3.8 μg/dLa level that's only barely tolerable. At 500 ppm, blood levels go up to 5.9 μg/dL, and at 1,000 ppm they go up to 7.5 μg/dL. These levels are high enough to do serious damage.

"I know people who have moved into gentrified neighborhoods and immediately renovate everything. They create huge hazards for their kids."

Mielke's partner, Sammy Zahran, walked me through a lengthy—and hair-raising—presentation about the effect that all that old gasoline lead continues to have in New Orleans. The very first slide describes the basic problem: Lead in soil doesn't stay in the soil. Every summer, like clockwork, as the weather dries up, all that lead gets kicked back into the atmosphere in a process called resuspension. The zombie lead is back to haunt us.

Mark Laidlaw, a doctoral student who has worked with Mielke, explains how this works: People and pets track lead dust from soil into houses, where it's ingested by small children via hand-to-mouth contact. Ditto for lead dust generated by old paint inside houses. This dust cocktail is where most lead exposure today comes from.

Paint hasn't played a big role in our story so far, but that's only because it didn't play a big role in the rise of crime in the postwar era and its subsequent fall. Unlike gasoline lead, lead paint was a fairly uniform problem during this period, producing higher overall lead levels, especially in inner cities, but not changing radically over time. (It's a different story with the first part of the 20th century, when use of lead paint did rise and then fall somewhat dramatically. Sure enough, murder rates rose and fell in tandem.)

And just like gasoline lead, a lot of that lead in old housing is still around. Lead paint chips flaking off of walls are one obvious source of lead exposure, but an even bigger one, says Rick Nevin, are old windows. Their friction surfaces generate lots of dust as they're opened and closed. (Other sources—lead pipes and solder, leaded fuel used in private aviation, and lead smelters—account for far less.)

We know that the cost of all this lead is staggering, not just in lower IQs, delayed development, and other health problems, but in increased rates of violent crime as well. So why has it been so hard to get it taken seriously?

There are several reasons. One of them was put bluntly by Herbert Needleman, one of the pioneers of research into the effect of lead on behavior. A few years ago, a reporter from the Baltimore City Paper asked him why so little progress had been made recently on combating the lead-poisoning problem. "Number one," he said without hesitation, "it's a black problem." But it turns out that this is an outdated idea. Although it's true that lead poisoning affects low-income neighborhoods disproportionately, it affects plenty of middle-class and rich neighborhoods as well. "It's not just a poor-inner-city-kid problem anymore," Nevin says. "I know people who have moved into gentrified neighborhoods and immediately renovate everything. And they create huge hazards for their kids."

Tamara Rubin, who lives in a middle-class neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, learned this the hard way when two of her children developed lead poisoning after some routine home improvement in 2005. A few years later, Rubin started the Lead Safe America Foundation, which advocates for lead abatement and lead testing. Her message: If you live in an old neighborhood or an old house, get tested. And if you renovate, do it safely.

Another reason that lead doesn't get the attention it deserves is that too many people think the problem was solved years ago. They don't realize how much lead is still hanging around, and they don't understand just how much it costs us.

It's difficult to put firm numbers to the costs and benefits of lead abatement. But for a rough idea, let's start with the two biggest costs. Nevin estimates that there are perhaps 16 million pre-1960 houses with lead-painted windows, and replacing them all would cost something like $10 billion per year over 20 years. Soil cleanup in the hardest-hit urban neighborhoods is tougher to get a handle on, with estimates ranging from $2 to $36 per square foot. A rough extrapolation from Mielke's estimate to clean up New Orleans suggests that a nationwide program might cost another $10 billion per year.

We can either get rid of the remaining lead, or we can wait 20 years and then lock up all the kids who've turned into criminals.

So in round numbers that's about $20 billion per year for two decades. But the benefits would be huge. Let's just take a look at the two biggest ones. By Mielke and Zahran's estimates, if we adopted the soil standard of a country like Norway (roughly 100 ppm or less), it would bring about $30 billion in annual returns from the cognitive benefits alone (higher IQs, and the resulting higher lifetime earnings). Cleaning up old windows might double this. And violent crime reduction would be an even bigger benefit. Estimates here are even more difficult, but Mark Kleiman suggests that a 10 percent drop in crime—a goal that seems reasonable if we get serious about cleaning up the last of our lead problem—could produce benefits as high as $150 billion per year.

Put this all together and the benefits of lead cleanup could be in the neighborhood of $200 billion per year. In other words, an annual investment of $20 billion for 20 years could produce returns of 10-to-1 every single year for decades to come. Those are returns that Wall Street hedge funds can only dream of.


Memo to Deficit Hawks: Get the Lead Out



Lead abatement isn't cheap, but the return on investment is mind-blowing.



There's a flip side to this too. At the same time that we should reassess the low level of attention we pay to the remaining hazards from lead, we should probably also reassess the high level of attention we're giving to other policies. Chief among these is the prison-building boom that started in the mid-'70s. As crime scholar William Spelman wrote a few years ago, states have "doubled their prison populations, then doubled them again, increasing their costs by more than $20 billion per year"—money that could have been usefully spent on a lot of other things. And while some scholars conclude that the prison boom had an effect on crime, recent research suggests that rising incarceration rates suffer from diminishing returns: Putting more criminals behind bars is useful up to a point, but beyond that we're just locking up more people without having any real impact on crime. What's more, if it's true that lead exposure accounts for a big part of the crime decline that we formerly credited to prison expansion and other policies, those diminishing returns might be even more dramatic than we believe. We probably overshot on prison construction years ago; one doubling might have been enough. Not only should we stop adding prison capacity, but we might be better off returning to the incarceration rates we reached in the mid-'80s.

So this is the choice before us: We can either attack crime at its root by getting rid of the remaining lead in our environment, or we can continue our current policy of waiting 20 years and then locking up all the lead-poisoned kids who have turned into criminals. There's always an excuse not to spend more money on a policy as tedious-sounding as lead abatement—budgets are tight, and research on a problem as complex as crime will never be definitive—but the association between lead and crime has, in recent years, become pretty overwhelming. If you gave me the choice, right now, of spending $20 billion less on prisons and cops and spending $20 billion more on getting rid of lead, I'd take the deal in a heartbeat. Not only would solving our lead problem do more than any prison to reduce our crime problem, it would produce smarter, better-adjusted kids in the bargain. There's nothing partisan about this, nothing that should appeal more to one group than another. It's just common sense. Cleaning up the rest of the lead that remains in our environment could turn out to be the cheapest, most effective crime prevention tool we have. And we could start doing it tomorrow.

Support for this story was provided by a grant from the Puffin Foundation Investigative Journalism Project.

From Mother Jones Magazine January/February 2013 Issue @ http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

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