Mark Jerome Walters's book Six Modern Plagues: and How We Are Causing Them is relatively new, but its ideas are far from original. Instead, the book more closely resembles an age-old religious pronouncement—and a misguided one at that. With credentials in veterinary science, Walters offers disappointingly little scientific insight and still less constructive advice for addressing some genuine human concerns. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Like many modern-day Greens, Walters expounds a Romantic view of nature reminiscent of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts in which the philosopher deemed civilization the source of society's perils. Both authors reject the traditional Judeo-Christian view in which sinning against God leads to the eviction of mankind from <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Eden, thereby leaving human survival hinged on a battle against nature.
Walters's version reads more like a pagan myth in which mankind is punished for a sin against a different deity: Mother Nature. In the name of “efficiency and profit,” “the financial gain of the few,” or “progress,” mankind has assaulted nature with such sins as globalization, urban sprawl, hunting, and modern agriculture. By upsetting nature's balance, we have spawned diseases and created a pagan version of “paradise lost.” Walters calls for atonement though preservation of our “ecosystems” and establishing “greater social equity.”
The saga started some 10,000 years ago with the growth of agriculture and contact between humans and animals. Humans proceeded to travel the world and spread disease until, somehow, we reached an era (the 20th century) during which we could “enjoy a dramatic decline in infectious diseases.” According to Walters, disease control resulted as we attained an “equilibrium” in which “societies developed immunity” and because societies had “adjusted their ways of life to control them.” He seems to be suggesting that gains were mostly the result of natural forces and some limited, but mostly passive, human responses.
We have recently entered a new age, according to Walters. “Over the past century, humans have so disrupted the global environment and its natural cycles that we risk evicting ourselves from our shelter of relative ecological stability,” and “so closely are many epidemics linked to ecological change that they might rightfully be called 'ecodemics,'” he exclaims. Walters then goes on to profile six modern “ecodemics”—Mad Cow Disease, AIDS, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, Hantavirus, and SARS.
Walters is right about one thing: Human actions do spread disease. But that is hardly a revelation. World travel throughout the ages has spread diseases across continents by importing foreign diseases that ravaged formerly unexposed populations. Even today, Western nations are seeing the emergence of new diseases and the reemergence of old ones, albeit with illnesses and deaths on a much smaller scale.
Clearly, we do have a need for disease-control efforts, and we should learn from the past, which Walters might say is his point. But that's not where his argument leads.
If globalization, the need for human living space (as embodied in so-called “sprawl”), and agricultural technologies are causing serious “ecodemics”, then reducing or eliminating them is necessary. In fact, Walters says we must address these causes by “protecting and restoring ecological wholeness upon which our health depends.” Walters never fully explains what “ecological wholeness” involves or how to attain it. The implication is that there should be fewer people, living in smaller, more isolated communities.
Like Rousseau, Walters's cure is more imaginary than achievable. Even if it were possible, it's not necessarily desirable. Human interaction is certainly not without its risks, but civilized life may not only be more meaningful, it is arguably man's truly natural state. In any case, we cannot turn back the clock of history.
Yet Walters makes readers almost believe that his prescriptions make sense by never bothering to consider the benefits of civilization and its technologies, or the tradeoffs of not having them. Thanks to globalization, economic growth, and human ingenuity, the average lifespan is now longer than anytime in history.
Accordingly, progress in the battle against disease has been remarkable. Aggressive human action has removed smallpox from the menu of diseases in the transmission cycle (only an act of terrorism could bring it back). Determined efforts, rather than passive responses, have made the last decade less disease-ridden. Mankind not only passes along germs, civilized man successfully controls many of them.
That is not to say the challenges don't continue. In addition to emerging infections in the Western world, people in developing nations suffer from diseases on a catastrophic scale. Consider the simple fact that people living in huts lack things that most people have in those “sprawling” neighborhoods that Walters dubs “shortsighted efforts to make the world more hospitable for humans.” They lack, for instance, barriers to mosquito entry such as screened windows—leaving them exposed to malaria-carrying insects that produce several hundred million illnesses and several million deaths every year. Most of malaria's victims are children.
The spraying of DDT on the walls of these homes—one of the most affordable options for the poor—could act as an alternative barrier to mosquitoes. But Walters never offers such advice or even bothers to acknowledge the millions who die owing to primitive living conditions.
Free trade and civilization may contribute to disease transmission, but these activities also create the economic growth that grants access to the essentials of healthy living: food, pesticides, sanitation, and water disinfectants. Those suffering the most from disease epidemics need more trade and economic growth to escape from—not return to—the life of the primitive.