Visions of “Ecodemics”

In Six modern plagues, veterinarian and journalist Mark Jerome Walters, like many modern-day greens, deems humankind the source of many of the world’s problems. He claims that because of humanity’s attempts to promote such alleged evils as “efficiency and profit,” “the financial gain of the few,” and “progress,” we are now suffering from diseases on an unprecedented scale. Modern technologies and free trade are supposedly responsible for six plagues (and probably many more), including mad cow disease, drug resistant and food-borne illnesses, aids, Lyme disease, the West Nile Virus, and sar s.

Walters fails to note much of anything that humans have done to actively control disease. In his view, diseases were reduced during the twentieth century because we reached an “equilibrium” in which “societies developed immunity” and because societies had merely “adjusted their ways of life to control them.” But because of humankind’s greed, those gains were limited and temporary, and we have recently entered a new age of great ecological destruction. “So closely are many epidemics linked to ecological change that they might rightfully be called ‘ecodemics ’,” Walters exclaims.

He is right that human actions, particularly human interactions, spread disease. In the 2001 book Mosquito, Harvard’s infectious disease expert Andrew Spielman and co-author Michael D’Antonio detail the ravages of infectious diseases that have occurred throughout history as humankind expanded trade and engaged in military conquest. Unlike Walters, those authors also describe the commendable efforts of individuals who labored to discover the causes of the sicknesses and develop cures. They understand the mistakes and challenges presented by commerce, but they also recognize the realities of this world: We cannot quarantine nations. Instead, Spielman and D’Antonio provide some valuable, practical advice for control methods in the modern world.

In stark contrast, Walters focuses on condemning human action (home building, trade, hunting, etc.) and technology, while offering a false solution. His cure prescribes preservation of “ecosystems,” “greater social equity,” and involves “protecting and restoring ecological wholeness upon which our health depends.” He never fully explains what this romantic vision involves, but this “solution” would require dramatic changes — demanding that we transition to a world of small, isolated communities with little trade and far fewer people. In addition, he appears ready to dispense with certain technologies such as the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

Walters not only ignores the fact that his solution is unattainable, he also ignores the fact that the freedoms and technologies he is willing to sacrifice are the best measures for reducing disease. Thanks to free trade and resulting economic growth, the average lifespan is now longer than at any time in history, food is more plentiful, and many diseases have been brought under control. Some diseases, like small pox, have even been eradicated (although an act of terrorism could reintroduce small pox). In their book, Spielman and D’Antonio note that modern living has also helped reduce insect-transmitted disease by limiting human exposure. They note that disease incidence declined as “improvement in the local economy provided better housing, roads, and utilities services

such as water supplies, sewers, and electricity.” The world needs more development — not a “more natural” or primitive lifestyle.

Many of the world’s poor suffer because they lack items commonly found in the “sprawling” neighborhoods that Walters dubs “shortsighted efforts to make the world more hospitable for humans.” For example, people in many poor countries do not have mosquito-proof housing with screened windows — leaving hundreds of millions of people exposed to malaria-carrying mosquitoes that cause millions of cases of illnesses and death every year.

Six Plaguesis also misleading because it ignores basic facts when detailing specific diseases and potential causes. The reader is misled into believing that certain technologies are easily dispensable. Consider the chapter on antibiotic use in farm animals. According to Walters, farmers use antibiotics because “in the short term, it’s cheaper to keep animals drugged than to keep them clean. Animals fed a steady diet of antibiotics with their grain also grow a little faster, thereby making the producers extra money.” But farmers’ incentive to make “extra money” has proved anything but disastrous. Modern farming practices enable farmers to produce more plentiful, healthier food at a lower cost to consumers, while producing less environmentally dangerous waste.

In a 1999 report on antibiotic resistance, the National Research Council (nr c) notes that before modern breeding practices, it took far more time and feed to produce less food. In 1928, it took 112 days and 22 kg of feed to produce a chicken weighing 1.7 kg. By 1990, farmers could produce a larger bird (2 kg in size) in less than half the time (42 days) using less than one-fifth (4 kg) of the feed. The average hen laid 93 eggs per year in 1930, 174 eggs annually by 1950, and 252 eggs a year by 1993. The NRC provides similarly impressive statistics for other animals.

The need for less feed means less land is planted to feed animals, reducing farm-related runoff problems and making more land available for wildlife. Lower production costs and more production mean that more people can eat at a lower cost. And reduced feed intake means reduced animal waste, which reduces the environmental impacts of such waste. In addition, the n r c report concludes that antibiotics produce healthier animals, which translates into healthier meat for human consumption. The council also concludes that antibiotics use is beneficial, that the risks have not been fully verified, and that the extent of the problem of antibiotic resistance remains unclear. Walters does not mention any of those issues, but dismisses the entire NRC report because one member on the committee had served as a consultant for the agribusiness industry. As a result, he misses opportunities to provide constructive advice. He could have advocated reforming the drug approval process (as the nr c does) to ensure new antibiotics become available. Or he could have addressed the fact (as the nr c does) that potential overuse of antibiotics on humans is a more serious problem, and it could be addressed through greater educational efforts. He also could have noted that something as simple as improved food handling — better washing of produce and the cooking of meat and eggs to the appropriate temperature — could greatly reduce food-borne illnesses.

As Spielman and D’Antonio imply in the title of their chapter “Living with Mosquitoes,” we may not be able to eradicate all our problems, but we can employ realistic measures to minimize risks. Walters would rather imagine a better world, but his prescriptions would certainly make things worse.