Friday, 6 May 2016

On Smart Bugs, Climate Change, and Forgiveness

"As if it's not showing any forgiveness," is how the beleaguered fire chief of Fort McMurray, Alberta described the awful blaze that had just jumped a river and was devouring his town. Some 88,000 people, desperate to get away, were stuck in a vast traffic jam along the highway south, some running out of gas even as the fire roared up alongside.

"Forgiveness? Is he saying what we're thinking?" my husband and I asked each other. My husband said it first: he was ashamed, but he said it, even as we watched the horror unfolding from the safety of our den, feet up at the end of a day, tired, cosy, safe in the false assurance that nothing like this could overtake us, right? What we were thinking and did not want to say out loud is that this disaster was Nature's payback. Fort McMurray is the home of those who make their livings from the mining of the oil sands, a fossil fuel resource tarred as the dirtiest anywhere due to the carbon dioxide and methane let loose when it's burned. Fort McMurray and the oil sands have been targeted for years as the central evil by climate change warriors seeking to save us from ourselves, as if the exploitation of these sands is the worst of the worse. (What about the fracking going on throughout the US Midwest and in British Columbia that is causing earthquakes? What about the coal fired plants being built every day in China?)

Sow what you reap is how this is being spoken of online, according to Gary Mason, a columnist in my morning paper, a man who urges everyone to dump such notions where they belong. He found his own feet in Fort McMurray many years ago, as so many have done since. He reminds us that it has been the home of many seeking to earn a good wage to keep their families fed, of others employing wonderful skills to solve difficult engineering questions, because that's what they're trained to do and relish doing. Their work, as Mason reminds us, has kept all Canadians in a style better than we would have enjoyed otherwise, because in Canada, still, wealth is shared. And yet. If you have ever been to Fort McMurrray and toured a tar sands plant, seen the giant machines that fell whole forests as if they are little more than fields of grass, machines that chew the earth into such pits as to make the Orcs look like good guys, if you have seen that, as I have, you may harbor thoughts about Nature getting its own back.

Even the most rational among us like to think of Nature as a judge, a vengeful entity that will punish those who do wrong to us, or wrong the earth. In a way, this is yet another attempt by humans to remake Nature, in this instance into a Someone, a bigger version of a human person with motives like our own, who can be understood and possibly placated with words and gestures of remorse. When Nature is a Someone, we don't have to face the inconstancy and ubiquity of natural change, the hit or miss nature of natural disasters. We want the world to be predictable, to obey known social rules, to be controllable. One billionaire I've been researching has said that he avoids any situation he can't control: that's what he's after, control.

I say good luck to him because change rules everything alive, even billionaires, and even things not alive, like wildfires. Fires have a brief almost-life: they are born, they consume and grow, they evade human efforts to extinguish them almost as if they are making smart choices to preserve their existence. Eventually they die for lack of fuel.  Viruses, which aren't alive either, have to hitch a ride in the cells of actual living things in order to propagate. Sometimes they kill that which they use to increase themselves, which ends them too. But sometimes they pick up a new piece of genetic material from one of their hosts, a trick that allows them to thrive in new conditions.

We worry about big events like forest fires much more than we worry about microbial change. We prepare for the possibility of earthquakes and tidal waves, ice storms and droughts more than we get set for changes among the living and sort-of-living things that interpenetrate us in every way. Bacteria crawl over our skin, break down our food, signal to our brains and change our moods, and dispose of us when the central organizing network that distinguishes each of us finally gives up and disintegration begins. Viruses and bacteria are found everywhere from the deepest hot vents in the ocean to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, recycling vital chemicals, killing and being killed, sharing new genes that prove to be helpful or destructive in ways reminiscent of how we share the news good and bad.

This year, Nature has been teaching us that these small things must also be considered when we study and plan for climate change. Like forest fires, they can change human lives in sudden, drastic ways as they adapt to changed circumstances in their search for continuance. The Zika virus that used to just make people feel bad, has suddenly acquired new capacities. It enters human systems via vectors we do not understand, finding its way (how? thanks to a particular mosquito?) into the neurons of  developing fetuses and the nervous systems of adults. Mothers, thinking joy will be theirs, give birth to children with microcephaly, the result of profound neurological destruction wrought by the virus as it replicates. Some infected adults find themselves paralyzed. Something so small, and only half alive, which used to be innocuous, or, at worst, an irritant, now thrives in humans in ways that make lives hell.

Recently too, a bacterium called Elizabethkingia, which once left humans pretty much alone, has been having a moment, even as Zika makes its way into North America from ground zero in northeastern Brazil. The number of cases of this bacterial infection seen in Wisconsin have gone up almost by an order of magnitude this year-- from almost none to at least 59 cases since November, according to Jennifer Yang writing in the Toronto Star. Yang reports that there's only been one case known in all of Canada in the last three years yet Illinois has an outbreak -- caused by a different strain. It isn't a nice bug: 20 deaths have been linked to it and this bacterium is everywhere, though the particular species at work in Wisconsin was only discovered in 2011 living in the gut of a mosquito. Turns out the bacterium likes to congregate and propagate in human blood. Turns out that it is highly drug resistant with more than 20 antibiotic resistance genes.

Bugs like this can make punishment by forest fire almost seem kindly. While the changing fire season in Canada's northwest is undoubtedly our collective fault, the changes in microbial life resulting from climate change will likely have a far more serious impact on humans everywhere. The microbes are far smarter collectively than we will ever be, and as one Canadian researcher has suggested, have a worldwide network through which useful new genetic information is shared. This is why fighting new infections caused by changed bugs is going to make fighting forest fires look easy by comparison.

The microbes won't be forgiving either.

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