A writer with whom I have a great deal in common discusses the media hoopla over the swine flu on Alternet. This has got me to thinking more generally about apocalyptic fantasies, which seem to be a cultural staple for as long as people have been writing stuff down, and presumably since before then. Unfortunately, religio-mystical eschatology is not only still with us, but may well be as strong as it has ever been. Here's a polling nugget from 2002 -- and note that this after we had safely made it through the bimillenium:
A TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack.
We've had plenty of secular millenarian frenzies lately as well -- from survivalism based on various analyses of how the elaborate interdependencies of modern society were a set up for catastrophic collapse, to predictions of imminent ecological doom, to peak oil enthusiasts, to the Y2K bug, and so on. Some of these, I will be the first to tell you, have a connection to perfectly reasonable concerns, but there are schools whose insistence on the imminence and radical scope of catastrophe seems to be more about faith than reason.
In this category I will place the problem of emerging infectious disease. It's obviously not crazy to hold that one day, somehow, a great plague might devastate humanity and profoundly change society. After all, it has happened before. The Black Death of the 1300s is variously estimated to have killed from 1/3 to 1/2 the population of Europe, and by most analyses radically transformed society -- ultimately, from our point of view at least, for the better, in fact, because it elevated the status of the peasantry, destroyed feudalism, and created the conditions for the Rennaisance and the Enlightenment.
In marked contrast to the 14th Century, today we understand the nature of infectious diseases and we have effective methods available to combat them. Therefore it pays for us to be vigilant and have systems and plans in place to respond if a new infection poses a new kind of threat. We can do something about it. I am 100% for that. Yes, the world is overpopulated, but we need to solve that by reducing the birth rate, not raising the death rate. I hope nobody wants to argue with that.
Is it conceivable that some really nasty infection could get loose that it is resistant to all our antimicrobials, spreads like brushfire, and wipes out civilization before anybody can figure out a way to stop it? I suppose so. Can't rule it out. Then there's nuclear war and widespread global famine and a lot of stuff that might indeed happen.
But what I find odd and disturbing is that there are a substantial number of people out there for whom the prospect of a massively deadly and disruptive pandemic of some sort seems to represent wishful thinking. The recent swine flu outbreak struck me as likely to turn out to be a whole lot of not very much from the beginning, but I was careful to avoid making predictions. What I did insist upon was that it made no sense to start a massive public frenzy over the situation until and unless we knew that drastic measures were warranted.
What I found, in my sorties through the blogosphere, was a considerable faction that wanted to obssess about it, absolutely convinced that this was The Big One, that world commerce was going to shut down, developed economies would come to a halt, cities would empty and we'd all be huddling at Aunt Betsy's house in Wyoming writing the Decameron, and anybody who said otherwise was a wacko right-wing conspiracy theorist. We had two or three big front page posts on Kos every day consisting of elaborate influenza wonkery, and every time I made a comment suggesting we scale it back I'd attract replies accusing me of not knowing about 1918. I even got one of those here.
My diagnosis is that there are a lot of people who want something armageddonish to happen, and they want it so badly that their desire has morphed into belief. For a few of them, it's because they have a true vested interest -- their career prospects and/or their public prominence depend on pumping up the worst case scenario. They attract a lot of followers who just want something big to happen, because life is oppressive or perhaps merely boring. That's undoubtedly going to continue, we can't stop it. But what I want to make absolutely clear is that it is anathema to progressive politics and particularly to progressive public health activism. It belongs in the far fringes of wingnutosphere, not on the front page of Daily Kos.