Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V085-06_virus-earthWe have a tendency—perhaps because we are around only so briefly—to characterize history in “ages”; time Before Christ, or the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, The Modern Era. There were indeed, quantum lurches in history, some seemingly in the direction of a kinder, wiser, more considerate form of humanity, but that may be more because we are unable to get far back enough, or above enough, of our human history, to perceive it more seamlessly. There have also been lurches that are, at least in the view of this writer, retrograde. Monotheistic/eschatological faiths are one, wretchedly botched experiments like theocracies and communism, another, and it may well be that a more insidious and slower acting social poison of capitalism, yet another. It would seem that each time singular visions, whether mystical or systemic, of the purpose of man conjoined with political power they are undone by their inherent corruptibility (we corrupt systems, I allege, not then other way round).

Our “view” of things is much dependent upon our focus. And we are inexorably drawn from the establishing shots to the close-up, because it is almost always we who are, narcissistically, mostly interested in ourselves; and so it is “our” age that becomes the comparative baseline, “our” experience that is the only “relevant” viewpoint from which to focus life’s “subjective camera.” No matter what, the most objective-obsessed historian cannot get “outside” of him/herself, trapped like a bug in the amber of his own time, space and circumstance.

Progress. One suspects that there is some positive advancement of human evolution as we become more and more interdependent through urbanism and globalization; or is it just the sense that we need to become more aware of that interdependency. But Darwin would contest that point. Evolution was survival by natural selection, but it was not “human progress” in any axiomatic sense of that term. It is a chilling declaration, one that regards us as not above, and very much in control of biological processes that we are able to direct them normatively. It is Nature that is ultimately the mistress of our human fate, not the reverse (unless you subscribe to the fanciful destiny of Revelations). Here’s how David Quammen put it: “Among the most important things to remember about evolution—and about its primary mechanism, natural selection, as limned by Darwin and his successors—is that it doesn’t have purposes. It only has results. To believe otherwise is to embrace a teleological fallacy that carries emotive appeal (“the revenge of the rain forest”) but misleads…. They don’t come after us. In one way or another, we go to them.”* Quammen is referring to our human appreciation for the flesh of our neighbor species that brings is in close contact with them and their bacteria and viruses. The prospect of these critters to jump hosts increases the potential for a “bug” that vectors globally and kills with just the right speed to not burn out before it becomes pandemic.

It turns out that Guangdong is “a province of ravenous, unsqueamish carnivores” whose appetites fuel the biggest and most diverse live-animal markets in the world. Eventually, the culpable coronavirus was found in a civet cat, a mammal in the mongoose family, bound for a kitchen pot. More sleuthing showed that civets weren’t SARS’s main animal host. The civet had caught it from a horseshoe bat.

How did the bat and the civet connect with each other? The gruesome live markets of southern China are an enterprising virus’s dream come true: such close quarters and all those stacked cages in a region where increasingly adventurous tastes demand a supply of exotic animals, including horseshoe bats.**

The fact is that, historically, since the black plague of 1348, and the Great Influenza of 1918, we humans have been treated rather benignly by Mother Nature, particularly when we measure the record against that of intra-species cruelty. There has been nothing in the scale of thee infrequent pandemics that is the equivalent of the die-ff of the great saurians. With good reason and better memory, we have had far greater cause to worry about the behavior of our neighbor than that of our environment. So there have been great famines (those occasioned by greed and stupidity), genocidal wars, ethnic cleansings and other acts of inhumanity, but even they have also left the perpetrators, and most of the rest of humankind intact and unharmed. At the same time there have been significant advancements in health, productivity, and increases in economic well-being to compensate and countervail these acts of inhumanity such that we have become (over?)confident in our capacity to remedy the consequences of our misbehaviors; our meanness is often mitigated by our cleverness.

This is all preparatory to alleging that we are unaccustomed to the idea of the combination of environmental and human events that would result in a massive global die-off of our species, a level of self–inflicted genocide without historical precedent, and seemingly with beyond our capacity to imagine its eventuality. Only the mass extinction of the great and long-lived reptilians of 65 million years ago, something we have difficulty in imagining and, for the scripturally-obsessed, cannot be temporally accounted, would serve as precedent for a catastrophic human global die off.

Viewed from the perspective of astrophysics the earth exhibits a stochastic recipe of its fundamental periodic table elements, its temperature, its form, its geology, even its polar magnetism, rearranged many times in its long history. [For you theists: Einstein might have said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” but maybe he (God) preferred “pick up sticks”] Times of conflagration, as well as great ice ages have come and gone many times. Most of the species and its biohistory have emerged, thrived and gone into extinction. We are the only species who possess a consciousness of all that, but we are so obsessed with our individual needs and ambitions, our individual mortality, rendering us largely incapable of orienting our personal and social behavior to respect the current beneficent expression of the natural environment or to imagine it turning upon us with an indifferent lethality.

We will likely be incapable, if history is any teacher in this matter, of acting in concert, as members of a species, rather than as members of a nationality, race, ethnicity, faith, community, social class, or other level of division and distinction that has overwhelmed a capability of raising our identity to the common level by which the natural environment regards us. It is our intra-species ambitions, intolerance, delusions of grandeur and superiority, of arrogant “chosen people”-ness, while concomitantly setting ourselves above all others, of elevating ourselves to being the very raison d’etre for creation itself, that will be not our salvation, but our undoing.

I do not hold out great hope for such a species.

But there are those that do. For them the glass is half-full. Look, they will respond, we have come from little bands of hominids cowering in the grasses of African savannas to flying between continents, shipping our masses of products of our ingenuity across the vast seas, even poking our finger into the firmament with a dream of spatial colonization. We have facile minds to devise cures for diseases, fashion more efficient forms of locomotion, create new devices to communicate and amuse. No longer do we cower in the grasses, there is no fang, nor claw, no sting that we any longer fear; we are the masters of Earth, and so it must have been meant to be so. We are survivors, not just of that evolutionary tree, but because we have even figured out—in the laboratory, or in the pew—or think we have, how it all works. We are (call ourselves) Homo sapiens sapiens (although we don’t necessarily act like it).

But in fact we are a puny assembly of carbon atoms indiscernible from the stratosphere (without high-powered spy cameras), much less from the edges of our solar system and, universe-wise, we are a Podunk outpost of gravitational insignificance. How we have managed to regard ours species as the “center” of it, much less that it should be governed by our tenure (until the Rapture) is the height of human hubris in extreme, or the desperation to assign meaning to that which is epistemologically beyond us.

There will be a die off. There will be an adjustment/rearrangement in a system that is bigger than us, and whose workings are beyond our ken and capabilities. No doomsday “prepper’s” bolt-hole, or passel of firearms, or stash of pork and beans, will sustain us.

That’s the way the big system works; we are only a part of it, neither its creators or inheritors, or masters. “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Unless, of course, Jesus shows up for that Rapture thing; then some of us are home free.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.14.2013)

*Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (Norton, 2013) 
** Florence Williams, “How Animals May Cause the Next Big One” New York Review of Books, April, 25, 2013. See also, in these pages: 18.1 and 27.5