PANDEMONIUM: BIRD FLU, MAD COW DISEASE, AND OTHER BIOLOGICAL PLAGUES OF THE 21ST CENTURY
By Andrew Nikiforuk
One thing’s for sure: If the apocalypse happens we won’t be able to say we were never warned.
There’s been no shortage of gloom-and-doom prognoses for the Dark Age of the 21st century. Indeed, the longevity of the genre of popular pessimistic prophecy – going back through recent warnings about the population bomb, the coming anarchy, and the great stock market crash of (pick a year) – may have led to our developing a certain cultural immunity to their message. Not only has the worst not come to pass, civilization’s progress just seems to keep on rolling like a mighty SUV.
This hasn’t silenced the critics. They continue to identify various horsemen of the apocalypse, from a fall in oil production (the Peak Oil scenario), to climate change, to political instability and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to overpopulation, to economic collapse, to new pandemics and plagues. Usually these are all seen as interrelated in a global network of disaster. And globalization – indeed capitalism – is to blame for a lot if you follow the analysis of books like James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and now Andrew Nikiforuk’s Pandemonium.
Nikiforuk’s argument for globalization’s unwitting role in the enabling of new pandemics takes two forms. In the first place, an increase in the ease, speed, and volume of global trade has correspondingly increased microbial traffic. “Invaders prove that global trade is not just an innocent exchange of goods and gadgets but trade in every living thing. Each economic enterprise provokes a commensurate biological transaction.” In addition, a global economy leads to what Nikiforuk calls “the Wal-Martization of life,” one where, in the struggle not for survival but monopoly, local distinctions are erased and life becomes more homogenous and vulnerable. “The global winners – like the world’s ultimate invader, Homo sapiens – diminish diversity, decrease disease resistance, replace local biology with global tyrants, and generally homogenize all life.” The industry-standard pigs and chickens bred on factory farms, for example, have weaker immune systems and are more susceptible to viral outbreaks. Which, when they come, have catastrophic results due to overcrowding and the genetic uniformity (that is, genetic weakness) of the population.
In an interesting quirk, Nikiforuk even reverses the traditional direction of metaphor. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of social epidemics, for example, which Gladwell used to describe the results of an effective marketing strategy, is reinstated in the biological realm. In the global marketplace of life, viruses spread like viral marketing. Capitalism doesn’t behave like a disease, disease operates like capitalism.
Is this putting the cart before the horse? Perhaps not. As Nikiforuk makes clear, economic interests are in the driver’s seat and global trade is doing more than just providing a free ride for biological invaders. The profit motive has been a great aider and abettor to a host of up-and-coming plagues, since the immense biological costs of global trade end up being shunted on to consumers and taxpayers anyway. And in a discussion of the government response to mad cow disease in Britain, France, and Canada, Nikiforuk explains how “commerce invariably prevailed” in any balancing of public vs. private corporate interests.
After newsy and informative chapters on subjects such as bird flu, mad cow disease, cholera, anthrax, and even the danger of visiting your local hospital (they aren’t as hygienic as they smell), Nikiforuk ends with a nightmare epilogue describing the “next pandemic,” complete with the dead being “burned in industrial-size pyres.” Can such an end be avoided? The best preventative medicine to the disease of globalism is self-reliance and “living local,” a “return to personal and local virtues that question bigness and power.” Unfortunately such a massive transformation in modern lifestyles is unlikely to happen voluntarily. It’s probably going to take the kind of enormous human disaster foreseen here for us to change our ways.
Review first published October 14, 2006.