Mother Nature Will Win

Mother Nature Will Win

At [human]nature, I try to bring you topics that not only deal with elements of what we call "the natural world," but also our interaction/interdependence with this world. In our comfort, we tend to forget about the ways, historically, that humans have suffered declines in population. This post, grounded in data from the CDC, appeared originally at Ombailamos, written by Alexandra Caluen. I had thought about a post on this topic, but Alexandra beat me to it. :)


Tuberculosis: Janice Carr CDC/ Dr. Ray Butler; Janice Carr [Public domain]

Tuberculosis: Janice Carr CDC/ Dr. Ray Butler; Janice Carr [Public domain]

Mr. P and I were watching "Cosmos" - the May 18 episode - and when Dr. Tyson got to the end, and was going into his positive futurist spin (to make up for the preceding "if we don't change our ways we are doomed"), I couldn't help thinking it might be the one intellectually dishonest paragraph he's spoken on that show.

Here is a prediction for you.  I predict that within the next 200 years - maybe half that - the human population will plummet by 40 to 60 percent, and the focus of our technological advancement will drastically change. 

We will not be planning colonies on Mars or the Moon.  We will instead be trying out various forms of New World Order.

Consequent to that, of course, the planet will get busy healing itself pretty expeditiously, having accomplished its aim of scouring much of the human infestation off the surface.

How will this be achieved?

Through a number of mechanisms, most ending with the word "virus."

Anti-vaccination activists and their store of attractive misinformation have helped to restore chicken pox, whooping cough, measles and polio.  The World Health Organization has, in fact, declared an international public health emergency with direct reference to polio.

Just ten years ago, thanks to the vaccine research of Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, and the ensuing decades-long work of volunteers funded in part by Rotary International, polio had been all but eradicated.  Now, thanks to widespread civil wars and the rise of fundamentalist Islam (and its own set of misinformation-founded conspiracy theories), cases have been reported in Pakistan, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Equatorial Guinea.

Hospital respiratory ward in Los Angeles, 1952
Hospital respiratory ward in Los Angeles, 1952

It won't be long before we start seeing horror journalism, with photos of paralyzed victims suffocated by their own dysfunctional central nervous system, and people will start to wake up about the basic immorality of reducing - or refusing - access to vaccines. 

By then, though, the disease will very likely have spread throughout Africa, throughout the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia, and into Russia and its satellites - all areas with large enough Muslim populations and frequent-enough internal conflicts to make population-wide vaccination campaigns difficult, if not impossible.

Also, of course, there is the not-insignificant likelihood that the virus will mutate, rendering our vaccines ineffective. 

Polio is not the superkiller of infectious disease, though.  All it does to most patients is make them good and sick for a while.  For a small subset, it causes variously worsening effects, with the worst being complete paralysis and death.  But all you have to do is look up "polio history" to see a gallery of photos of people living with polio-associated partial paralysis. 

Here in the U.S., we have the resources to treat the infection and to mitigate its effects.  We also have the political muscle to refuse entry - and in my opinion we should - to international travelers who cannot produce immunization records. 

In the countries where polio is spreading, it is not at all unlikely that people incapacitated by polio will simply starve to death as they are abandoned by their fearful co-inhabitants.

It is a mistake to think that people will always rally around the victims of a pandemic.  In the Middle Ages, plague victims were sometimes abandoned, to either recover or not.  And that was in a theocratic Europe where fear of hell was considerably stronger than it is now.

Contagious disease is something we barely comprehend in the U.S. because the worst we've seen in 50 years is a bad flu season.  But there are still big swaths of the planet where disease is considered a curse.  And where there is no real chance of treatment - as in poor, or war-torn, or theocratic societies - getting the heck out of dodge is a rational response for the healthy person.  Staying to die is not rational.

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed an estimated 50 million people out of 500 million assessed as infected.  The world population at that time was, according to one source, about 1.8 billion.  So a simple calculation tells us that just over 25% of the world population caught the virus, and it then killed ten percent of them (a 10% mortality rate).

As a comparison, the Ebola virus has 50% mortality and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, caused by a coronavirus) has 30%.  The transmission pattern for MERS can quite reasonably be expected to mirror that of polio.  It could kill a lot more people than polio ever will.

The current world population is (roughly) 7.1 billion.  If 30 percent of the population catches the next virulent strain of influenza that is 2.13 billion people, and 10 percent of those people - 213 million - will likely die.  Not because influenza is intrinsically a killer, but because the people most likely to catch the virus are people in nations where public health is not a priority.

213 million is more than the populations of Russia, Canada, and Australia combined.  It's just a little more than the population of Brazil, and not quite twice the population of Mexico.  Imagine, if you can, any one of those countries completely depopulated by a plague, and the effects this would undoubtedly have on the world order.

That's not how it will work, of course; plague deaths will be concentrated, as noted above, in poor countries.  The world order will then face the dilemma of whether an attempt should be made to rebuild these unsuccessful countries, or whether they should simply be annexed by less-unsuccessful neighbors in a new round of imperialism. 

I could tell you which scenario I think is more likely, but I don't think I need to.

I have no doubt at all that antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is not far behind.  Though caused by a bacterium and not a virus, like staph or E. Coli, TB must be thoroughly treated in order to achieve a cure.  Treatment is lengthy and expensive, which is why people often stop before they are cured. 

According to one source, in 2012 8.2 million TB infections were reported and 1.3 million people died of it. That's a 15% mortality rate.  The mortality rate for drug-resistant TB is a lot worse.

Another thing that has to be mentioned.  In any plague, women and children die just as fast as - or faster than - men.  Women because they are caregivers, and children because they are fragile.  The countries most at risk for these plagues already have abysmal health services, and mortality rates, for women and children. 

So if you assume 10% of a population will die from a disease, probably 7% are women and children and 3% are men.  That leaves an even greater imbalance than already exists, in many of the most at-risk countries, due to gender selection (i.e. infant abandonment and/or murder) and other cultural factors. 

When you have too many men, you get more extremism, more violence, more war. 

Mother Nature is not trying one thing at a time.  She is throwing everything at us.  We make her job a lot easier by letting misinformation, conspiracy theories, and ideology guide our health decisions.



Image Source:

Wikipedia Commons

Distinctive, Native Orchid

Distinctive, Native Orchid

Invasion of the Unidentified Moths

Invasion of the Unidentified Moths