Long term thinking and the antibiotic resistance crisis

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Adapted from a photo by Fredrik Rubensson

There was the email: I would like to invite you to our July event Getting Cozy with Catastrophe: Superbugs, Drug Resistance … When I received an invitation to a talk on antibiotic resistance, I have to admit, I was initially a little bit uninspired by the topic. If you’ve been in a biological field for long enough, you kinda know the antibiotic resistance story. But then I looked a little closer at the write-up. Superbugs, Drug Resistanceand the Power of Long Term Thinking. “Ah,” I thought. “Maybe there will be something new to bring to the table.” And so it was that when on July 5th, Women in Tech Cape Town hosted a TechTalk with drug resistance scientist Dr Imogen Wright as the speaker, I was sitting in the audience, with my pen at the ready.

At first Wright made all the usual points. Antibiotic resistance arises in bacteria populations – so on a course of antibiotics the weak bacteria get killed and (especially when you don’t finish your antibiotic courses) the resistant bacteria are left, and passed on. And if things continue this way, with resistant bacteria arising, millions of people will die of diseases that we have already found a cure for. While it may be true, this is classic catastrophist talk.

But what Wright went on to do differently, was that she stopped to think about how we talk about catastrophes – with numbers that we can’t grasp, and a doomsday approach. Which leaves you feeling like you can’t do anything. Oh well, that’s life, right? If we can’t do anything about it, we have the tendency to just not think about it. But this is why it is important to remember the personal stories behind antibiotic resistance.

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Dr Imogen Wright talks about long term thinking and antibiotic resistance. Credit: Megan Mclaren

We all hear the talk about climate change, but do we know what to do about it on a personal level? What about antibiotic resistance, and more importantly, the people living with that reality? Wright made an interesting and tentative suggestion based on some virtual reality research. It has been shown that talking to a simulated future version of yourself can change the way you behave now – for example chatting to a virtual reality future you results in better retirement saving habits. So what if future you could talk to present you about antibiotic resistance? What would future you say? How’s about giving present you some practical suggestions? Like washing your hands to prevent spreading germs. But not with antibacterial soap, since this also raises resistance levels. One audience member suggested that going vegetarian could have an impact due to the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock feed causing resistance. Wright suggests this approach of imagining a conversation with future you, or writing a post-it from future you, so that we might begin to realise how our decisions now will impact our own lives, and those of our family, friends, and even the world in ten, twenty, thirty years time. It’s the power of long-term thinking, and not just the here and now.

“I suspect that if we train ourselves in long-term thinking with the small decisions – with washing our hands, with what we buy in the supermarket – there’ll be a few points in all of our lives where we’re able to make a really big decision that makes a big difference about some kind of catastrophe,” adds Wright.

We train children in long-term thinking: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But somewhere along the way, we seem to lose that long-term view. Perhaps we should take Wright’s suggestion to heart – whether it’s a career goal in 5 years time, planning for retirement, or acting in light of a possible catastrophe such as antibiotic resistance, perhaps it’s time we all start to think a little bit more long-term.

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