The evolution of resistance to antibiotics by various pathogens has worried the medical field for years. As I noted back in March, state health officials have been holding unusual symposiums that gather nurses, doctors, veterinarians, dentists, pharmacists and others to talk about how to use and handle antibiotics without overusing them (here is the article ).
In case you thought that was over-reaction, the United Nations has just issued a warning that drug resistance could kill millions, maybe tens of millions, of people within our lifetime. Here’s the NY Times story.
This problem is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Everybody does what benefits them locally in the short term – using antibiotics “just in case” or throwing them at livestock to increase their growth – but the total result is to harm everybody in the long term. The benefits are local and immediate, the costs are spread out over space and time. That’s exactly the kind of problem that is hardest for society to cope with; climate change is, of course, another example.