Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Apocalypse maybe?

I can't remember the guy's name and I can't figure out a way to use your favorite on-line search engine to track it down, but many suns ago -- 20 years or so -- he was a highly controversial microbiologist who claimed it was a certainty -- not if but when -- that the global human population would be decimated by a global pandemic, or maybe several, of emerging infectious diseases.

The controversy was not so much over whether this was true -- a lot of people in the public health field, of various disciplines, tended to think so. The controversy was because he gave the impression he thought this would be a good thing. The human population is already unsustainable and becoming more so. Either we have megadeath by microbe, or by ecosystem collapse, and the former seemed preferable.

I'm not rooting for either eventuality, but I do think we need to stop having so many babies, and fast. Actually the global fertility rate has declined sharply in recent decades but not enough. Nine billion people -- the consensus number expected by demographers -- by 2050 -- all aspiring to the current levels of consumption of Europeans and North Americans -- are not a thing that can possibly work.

But what about doom by emerging infectious disease? CDC certainly worries about it and publishes an open access journal on the subject. HIV is an example of an EID that would indeed have done what the anonymous prophet predicted if it were more easily transmitted. Fortunately it's hard to catch, but it has everything else you need to wipe out much of the species -- long incubation period, so people can be walking around spreading it for a long time before they collapse on the cot -- no vaccine, no recovery, and totally deadly. Despite its wimpiness in getting from one person to another, it spread all over the world very quickly thanks to the shrinking of the planet by air travel.

We've had other episodes -- SARS, which fizzled out, novel influenza which turned out to be, meh. Actually I would say that the flu pandemic hoax of 2009-2010 -- and that's what it was, basically -- shows that yes, there are a lot of people kind of secretly wanting something dramatic to happen. The fact is that global interconnectedness, the very large human population which creates a lot of vessels where bugs can evolve and DNA recombine, and human contact with every sort of animal, does create a real risk of a new Black Death, this time globally, not just in one continent. But it's really totally imponderable. Nobody can say what the probability is that the exactly correctly nasty microbe will appear; and if it does, we'll figure it out quickly and maybe find a way to fight it before the worst happens. So yes, it's possible but I'm going to say not our biggest worry. I'm going to say that.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I'm reading J. Craig Venter's book Life at the Speed of Light. As I understand it, he describes a bidirectional DNA - digital gateway.

As an aging computer nerd I've spent a great deal of my life dealing with issues that are the result of the mischief hackers create.

I assume that the DNA-digital gateway, while relatively few in number today, will become more prevalent in the future.

This should scare the hell out of us.