Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Only one of the Great Human Plagues has been eradicated so far in this ever-so-clever scientific world: smallpox. The suspicion is that someone somewhere (probably us) has a freezer of the last bits of it, so we can use it as a weapon. (Only if provoked, of course, though we provoke rather easily.) Cholera, malaria, flu, bubonic plague, typhoid, tuberculosis -- now joined by HIV-AIDS -- are somewhat treatable and almost completely preventable if their supporting ecological conditions (mostly poverty and hunger) are changed.

At one point I spent a lot of time reading about plagues. Ebola, for instance, is an inefficient disease because it is so virulent that people drop in their tracks in days, which is not always enough time to get to the next host. Another mistake on the part of plagues is the vulnerability of their vectors, which carry infection through the air, through liquids like water, and from one person to another through contact, which means that all those routes, if detected, can be interdicted. Using a condom, eliminating mosquitoes, purifying water, are all effective strategies but -- directly or indirectly -- the greatest ally a plague has is political. The lack of political will allows both the actual infections and their vectors to continue, even thrive and find new resources.

Lack of political will comes from stigmatizing (I always hear in my mind, “stinkmatizing”) and possibly criminalizing those who need help/money. The countervailing force is first, the awareness of other human beings as having value and empathizing with them, and second, the awareness that politicians can very well fall victim to stinkmatizing. They themselves, regardless of disease status, can become marked for exclusion. None of them is invulnerable to tragedy. They must see that though it is effective to have needy clients, whether they are constituents or whole nations, a failed nation is worth nothing and will prey on prosperity.

Many people working from many motives try to throw life-saving resources to suffering people. Most will choose one issue and put all their effort into it, perhaps because of personal experience with it. We become increasingly aware that ALL diseases are essentially molecular and therefore intermeshed, planetary, trans-species. A man just walked across Africa -- the gorillas and chimpanzees were gone. (They think ebola.) A man just drove the highways of Florida. The mammals were gone. (They think Asian pythons.) A disease is only one aspect of economics, ecology, transportation, and constant change even in the surface of the planet and its oceans expressed as climate, earthquakes, tsunamis. Even in the dynamics of the sun with its massive storms sending plasma curtains and particles our way.

I have chosen a location on this planet -- the east slope of the Rocky Mountains -- where I can age out with low resources and high spiritual renewal. For whatever reason, I’ve had access to major thinkers and accumulated a library that guides me to bigger libraries. Our diseases here are Alzheimers, diabetes, alcoholism, meth and violence. Our families are still stable enough -- for the most part -- to get the stink off loved ones, but we still struggle with racism and poverty. Some people seem unlovable.

Activists press me to respond to their issues and I’ve wondered what I should do. If the ethical rule I use is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, then I think I know what the answer is: the deepest cause of malignant loss and self-destruction is our understanding of what a human being is. We think we are nothing, maybe even a plague in ourselves, that can only be purified by apocalypse -- near universal destruction.

Therefore, I choose to address the nature of what it is to be human in an age that is discarding both anthropomorphism (thinking everything, including God, is in our image) and anthropocentrism (thinking that everything should be about us and what we want and need). I have a few realizations.

One is that there is no such thing as an individual. Solitary as I am, my head and heart are so crowded with people (I count animals, maybe even entities like trees or mountains or shorelines) that I sigh to meet new ones. A few are intensely meaningful to me, my very core.

The next thing is that my “identity” and consciousness (I think so I am) is a very small part of what goes on in my body. Eukaryotic cells formed over years of collaboration, drawing on the mitochondria in each cell, have been joined by a jillion little molecular creatures (QUITE real and physical though below human perception) from gut flora to eyelash fauna. Keeping them in harmony means emotion affects them and is produced by them.

To take this back to the subject of plague, my mother nearly died in the Spanish flu epidemic -- in fact, her doctor did. Her mother and grandmother died of cancer. These things intimidated her in a subtle way. She chose endurance maybe more than she ought to have, though she could be a good crusader as well. And endurance, tenacity, are valuable qualities. She is in me now. I am guarded, vigilant.

Constantly I have to fight awareness of all the bad things, mistakenly or on purpose, that I’ve done in my life. The failures, the fudges, the desertions -- I could create a virulent case of self-hate with no effort at all. Some people help me right along with my list of faults and others do NOT help when they refuse to admit my faults exist. Honesty is tough and slippery, but it is what I pursue. It can make me unwelcome, but if I can maintain honesty, it is productive. I get things done.

A human being is one element in an inconceivable interweaving of tiny forces. For two thousand years of Western religion we have tried to preserve our individual selves with a fantasy about everlastingness, but it has become pernicious. Now we must see that our salvation is in participation, to create memories and hope that will speak to others and break down stigma. At the same time we must be judicious, generous, disciplined in some ways and abandoned in others, demanding and forgiving, open and yet observant of boundaries in the molecular moments that add up to a life. If (when) we are taken by trauma or disease or simply old age, then we will have left glowing trajectories across the particle-detecting cloud chamber of the galaxy.

1 comment:

Rebecca Clayton said...

The smallpox cultures in storage facilities are not secret, and, as far as I know, have not been destroyed. (I worked on some of the early complete genome sequencing in the 1990's.)

The concern with destroying the libraries of smallpox strains was (still is, I think) that the currently-available vaccine might not be effective against every strain, and that there are some extra-virulent strains.

This wouldn't matter if everybody destroyed all the strains, but perhaps there is an unknown natural reservoir, or perhaps when the former USSR broke up, some strains were stolen and are in terrorist hands.

Something that always worried me (but not the molecular biologists) is the fact that the modern smallpox vaccine has never been tested in real life against smallpox. What if it doesn't work? Without smallpox cultures, there would be no way to make an old-school vaccine.