First with SARS, then H1N1, then ebola and now the Zika virus, mainstream media and official organizations have been quick to recognize and counter the threat with travel advisories, quarantines, research funding, vaccine development, and heightened levels of vigilance. Yet information about other kinds of threats that are just as deadly, such as pharmaceutical residues in drinking water, pesticide contamination, or heavy metal poisoning from air and water pollution, are usually relegated to alternative media, ignored, or even actively suppressed by public health authorities. Why is this?
The ready answer that comes to mind is economic. The manmade threats listed above are byproducts of profitable activities by corporations who have tremendous political influence. If we were to thoroughly address toxic contamination of our biosphere, our entire economic, industrial, medical, and agricultural system would have to change.
More deeply, a virus or other pathogen fits neatly into the basic crisis response template of our culture. First, identify an enemy – some unifactorial cause of the crisis – and then go to war against that enemy using all available technologies of control. In the case of a pathogen, control takes the form of antibiotics, vaccines, or antiviral agents, draining wetlands or spraying them with insecticides, quarantining infected individuals, and perhaps telling everyone to wear facemasks, stay indoors, or restrict travel. In the case of terrorism, control takes the form of surveillance, bombings, drones, border security, and so on. Whatever crisis we face, personal or collective, our pseudo-instinctual tendency is to enact this pattern of response.
Another way to look at it is that in the case of an infectious disease, our society knows what to do (or thinks it knows what to do). The solutions that present themselves are comfortably familiar. We just have to do more of what we have already been doing. We just have to extend the reach of our control-based civilization a little further, control things that hadn’t been under control before. Thus the machinery of containing or conquering a disease coincidentally aggrandizes agendas of social control generally. It justifies, exercises, and develops control systems that can be turned to other purposes.
The present situation with the Zika virus, which is blamed for a horrifying epidemic of microcephaly in Brazil, exemplifies the rush to a pathogen. Tests have shown the presence of the virus in the blood and amniotic fluid of some microcephalic fetuses in about one-tenth of confirmed cases in Brazil. However, Zika is also prevalent in Colombia and Venezuela, where no microcephaly outbreak has been reported.
The plot thickened a few weeks ago when a group of Argentinian doctors claimed that the outbreak is much more closely correlated with a larvacide aimed, ironically enough, at destroying the very mosquitoes that are blamed for the spread of Zika. The larvacide, called pyriproxyfen, was added to drinking water reservoirs in the same areas, and in the same time period, where microcephaly cases have surged.
Obviously, it is much more politically convenient to blame an outside agent for the disease than for governments and large corporations to take responsibility. It is also more ideologically convenient, from the perspective of the narrative of humanity ascending over nature. Rather than blame human activity, we can march against yet another threat from the natural world that we must overcome with a technological solution. That is something our culture is familiar with. Our institutions know how to do that; it exercises their capacities and justifies their existence.
Let us also be cautious, however, about identifying pyriproxyfen as “the cause” of the microcephaly. For one thing, the rush to blame a pesticide isn’t that different from the rush to blame a virus. It still fits into the ideology of control and the mentality of defeating an enemy. In fact, some cases of microcephaly occurred in regions where the pesticide wasn’t in the drinking water; pyriproxyfen, furthermore, is widely used around the world. It is a weak and circumstantial argument that identifies it as the culprit.
In the preceding phrase (“…the culprit.”) I have smuggled in an assumption that lies at the root of the problem. I am assuming there is “a” culprit, a unifactorial cause. Whether it is a virus or a chemical, that gives us something to control, to fight. Whether it is over a virus or over a state government or chemical company, the path to victory is clear.
The ideology of control depends on reductionism, ideally reduction of a problem to a single cause. Multifactorial, nonlinear, emergent problems defy reductionistic strategies. So, while we should undoubtedly ban the use of pyriproxyfen in drinking water immediately, even if the microcephaly epidemic ceases, that doesn’t mean we can continue business as normal and continue thinking in terms of linear cause and effect. Maybe it is Zika plus pyriproxyfen that is causing the deformities? Or maybe the chemical isn’t a direct cause, but increases the effect of some third substance in the body? Or it could be that it disrupts the aquatic ecosystem in some way we don’t understand that elevates another unknown environmental risk factor. We just don’t know.
We need to ask questions like, “What are the ecosystem disruptions that occur when you kill larva in any water (not just drinking water)?” “What are the cumulative and synergystic effects of thousands of artificial chemicals entering the biosphere and our bodies?” “How are we to make decisions about safety, when the usual means for testing safety is to control all variables except the one being tested?” You see, the paradigm of control extends all the way to a key formula for producing scientific knowledge: isolate a variable and test its effects.
Until we begin thinking in holistic terms, we will lurch from one enemy to the next, forever suppressing symptoms even as we worsen the disease. The questions above have no easy answers, but a good first step would be to pull back from the paradigm of dominating the enemy, controlling the Other, and conquering the self, and look with fresh eyes at everything we do from that paradigm: the drones, the prisons, the security state, the war machine, antibiotics, pesticides, genetic engineering, psychiatric medication, debt payment extraction… domination (including domination of “othered” parts of ourselves) threads through our entire civilization. It isn’t working so well anymore.