Analysis Keith Rankin.
One of the major themes in my life, as a baby-boomer growing up in the 1960s, has been the relationship between ‘man’ (aka humankind) and ‘nature’. Science – especially applied science, and western philosophy – was presented as a progressive economic project which involved ‘taming nature’. And indeed there were successes, many of them arising from a wholehearted commitment to applying the ‘germ theory of disease’. It was in the 1960s that, with the help of television advertising, fastidious cleanliness became a key attribute of ‘civilised’ man or woman.
(The present version of this economic project is the emphasis of education as being a ‘means to a job’, and the highlighting of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – in the curriculum.)
The post-WW2 (World War 2) epoch was characterised by the new magic of ‘antibiotics’; it’s all in the ‘anti’ part of the word. And in the idea that we would soon escape the earth’s gravitation and land a man on the moon. It was a heroically progressive age.
It was also a time of pushback. With our nuclear weapons we could destroy nature; or at least our earthly habitat. We still have that capacity. With DDT in the 1960s, we had the makings of a ‘silent spring’. Ecology became the new ‘left-wing’ science of nature; a counter to the perceived right-wing social science of economics, with its ‘physics envy’, and mathematical gymnastics that have been described as ‘autistic’. Eastern philosophies and religions came into fashion.
Malthusian thinking also came back into fashion; classical political economy meeting the new political ecology. The earth could carry only so many people; surely less than eight billion? But there were critiques of that kind of thinking, more nuanced and more hopeful, such as Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle (1971). This critique of unsustainable growth economics aroused my interests in ecology and economics.
Three other very important books from the 1970s should be cited here, too. First, the Social Limits to Growth (1976) by Fred Hirsch, who sadly died later that decade, still a young man. Hirsch showed, among other things, that primitive capitalism itself eroded the social capital which its success depended upon.
Second, I read James Lovelock’s short 1979 book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, in which human agency is treated very much as a potential nature-enhancing regulating mechanism within the life-force of planet earth. The earth, as nature, could be understood as a single living organism. This contrasts with a liberal-mercantilist worldview which treats the nation-state as a living organisation; subserving individual rights to the economic and political strategies of the officers of the national waka, the ship of state.
Third, a book written in 1976 – Plagues and Peoples, by William H McNeil – which I only read in 2020. This was macro- and micro-ecology writ large. (See my Microbes and Macrobes; lessons from biology and history, 8 Dec 2020.) And writ with humans in their context as a species embedded in nature. Humans do not at all represent the apex of nature; rather humans are subject to the predation of macropredators – such as the one wreaking havoc in Eastern Europe – and micropredators such as SARS-Cov2 and many much worse. Life is life a game of ‘paper, scissors, rock’; none is on top.
The end of history has not come. Everyman has not won. That idea was, at best, naïve. We live with nature, not over nature. We settle with nature; and we settle in nature. We adapt to nature, and that includes learning about nature, complex nature, and vaccinating or otherwise insuring ourselves against the episodic excesses of nature. When we try to banish nature, it comes back to ‘bite us on the bum’. Hence the existential threats which we call the ‘climate crisis’. Then there is the idea that we can sustain ourselves from micropredators through the ongoing application of measures such as social distancing, retreating to our domestic castles and our internet devices, wearing facemasks, and banning foreign-domiciled intruders from our national territories.
The Old Normal
The way we lived before 2020 was problematic in many ways, but not all bad. We took much of the good stuff for granted, converting natural systems of regulation and renewal into – in our minds – simple inconveniences. Bugs – visible or microscopic – became ‘disgusting’ but otherwise a natural part of life. Most of us would get a ‘common’ ‘head cold’ most years, usually in winter. When we got a really bad ‘cold’, we would call it ‘the flu’. We accepted these inconveniences grudgingly; we might even go to the trouble to take an annual flu vaccine, if it was ‘free’. For most of us the cost of such sickness was a few days off work, and the price of a few medicines from the local pharmacy.
We could get more seriously ill, of course. Indeed the vast majority of us accept that individual death is integral to the systemic sustainability of nature. Most of us – but not all – would die old. That was our contract with nature.
We also came to learn that our gut germs – though disgusting – were more beneficial to us than harmful. And we learned that we are mildly intolerant to many of our staple and nutritious foods; the likes of wheat, milk, fodmaps, and nightshades. We adapt to these foods, rather than eschewing them. We find our balance points – enough, but not too much – and we train our bodies to tolerate ‘a bit more’.
When learning about nature through formal science, we tended to focus on the more serious end of the spectrum of nature-induced ailments; hence nature presented itself to career scientists as a foe to be overcome. We learned much less about the recurring minor ailments which we take for granted.
Most of us never learned that the viruses and other microbes that cause illnesses have evolved into acceptable equilibria; evolved from ‘novel’ forms that could create havoc amongst one or many species for a short or a long period of time. The unfamiliar yet familiar things we take for granted almost always have fascinating backstories. We have encountered our pathogens in the past when in dangerous forms, and have adapted to them, reducing their habitats, and suffering their foibles. Our historical memory is mainly confined to the most severe episodes; to the 1918 flu pandemic rather than the 1957, 2009, or 2017 episodes. And to the second plague pandemic – which started as the ‘black death’ – rather than to the third plague pandemic which in 1900 created havoc in Sydney and briefly visited Auckland. Plague is less of a threat to humans today, thanks to antibiotics, and thanks to the long gaps between waves of disease; though it still kills lots of rodents in their burrows.
Rarely do we think that such microbes could be doing us some favours. Dr Richard Webby – a New Zealander living in Memphis, USA – has been interviewed at least twice on RNZ during the current pandemic. He says (Flu season could follow hard on the heels of Omicron, 20 Feb 2022): “We do think that once you get one virus there is a period of time where you’re less susceptible to other viruses that are trying to get into that same part of your body”. The observation is pure ecology, that the human respiratory trace is a ‘habitat’, and that an occupied habitat represents a form of protection from intruders. Better to be occupied by the ‘lesser evil’ than to be open to the greater evil.
A very worthwhile scientific hypothesis is as follows: many of the microbes that annoy us, in the process of being annoying, may be actually protecting us from more serious micropredators. And, in doing so, they may inhabit spaces in our bodies that, in effect, represent a ‘no vacancy’ sign to other potential occupiers. And they may generate co-immunity – or cross-immunity – meaning that they may act like natural vaccines, building defences against their more dangerous first and second cousins.
Thus, in the old normal, and according to the undisproven hypothesis above, exposure to viruses saved us from viruses. (Science works through falsifying – disproving – hypotheses. Thus, in science, ‘truth’ is a body of hypotheses that have been subject to testing, and that have not so far been disproved. True scientists are never arrogant enough to act as if they are our guardians of truth.)
Disturbing the Old Normal in Unforeseen but Foreseeable Ways
In terms of the Covid19 pandemic, we humans are not the foe or rival of any of the variants of the covid virus. We are a host species of these coronaviruses. The principal rival of omicron-covid is delta-covid. Yes, nature – the circulatory system of nature – can be served by the extinction of species, such as smallpox, or variations of species, such as delta-covid. Already, omicron-covid may be well on its path of evolutionary conquest; the mutating journey of a novel – probably hybrid – coronavirus to becoming humans’ fifth common ‘common cold’ coronavirus. (And see my reference to a BBC story about the ‘common cold’ ‘booting out’ covid: Common Cold exposure may be, in effect, a partially effective Covid19 vaccine, Scoop 8 Apr 2021.)
Charts done recently (see Respiratory Viruses: Seasonal Mortality Compared, Evening Report18 Feb 2022, noting the cited European countries) show that the pattern of human mortality associated with the most recent covid wave in Europe already looks much like any other virus that visits Europe in the winter or early spring.
Maybe nature can be best served through the extinction of humans? Not necessarily, though this could happen, as nature responds to the anthropogenic stresses that it faces. Taking optimism from the Gaia hypothesis, through reasoned thought – humans, like microbes, can act relatively quickly to correct threats to nature. Being able to do so doesn’t necessarily mean that human will actually do so, however.
In defending ourselves against a new micropredator, SARS-Cov2, the last thing we want to do is reactivate – to re-arm – former dangerous viruses that we got used to, and which got used to us. Immunity to certain types of viruses may be short-lived; and is maintained by regular – eg seasonal – re-exposure. Indeed, this cycle of waxing and waning immunity is one of the principles behind the annual influenza jab; the jab that, ‘under the public health radar’, lengthened many ‘first world’ lives after it was introduced late last century. Further, influenza jabs are not the only vaccinations that offer a considerable degree of immunity while falling short of giving lifelong immunity. The word ‘booster’ preceded the word ‘covid’.
The fortress behaviours that may protect us from an immediate micro-threat can, if persevered with, also be the measures that undermine the misunderstood old normal. Indeed, it is tempting for us to think that these barrier protections, by keeping out the adapted old-normal viruses, will actually confer on us additional benefits. Under this ‘any germ is a bad germ’ idea, more cleanliness is always better than less cleanliness; the safest environment is a sterile environment. The idea becomes that, by providing explicit and indefinite barriers from nature, we – a part of nature – can become a whole lot healthier. Better to divorce from nature than to be married with nature.
The ‘scrub it within an inch of its life’ ethos – which was the ethos of 1960s’ consumerism – well and truly returned in 2020, when anything that may have come into contact with the SARS-Cov2 coronavirus had to be “deep-cleaned”.
My recent chart analysis on Evening Report – Covid19 Deaths and Facemasks: some rich countries compared, 24 Mar 2022 – indicates that the countries with the fewest pandemic excess deaths in 2021 (especially Denmark, Sweden and Finland; the text also mentions Japan) are the countries which had the lightest facemask mandates. Generally, the Scandinavian countries imposed the least facemasking requirements; they also tended to impose the least of other types of public health restrictions.
The website ourwordindata.org/coronavirus has data series for pandemic outcomes and policies, including measures for mask-mandating, and a ‘stringency’ index. My charts show excess deaths alongside published Covid19 deaths. Although Denmark in particular has had high covid infection rates, it has had excess deaths lower than its southern neighbours. Sweden, with less mask use had even lower death rates than Denmark in 2021/22; although Sweden did have more deaths in 2020.
Generally, the data supports the hypothesis that public health ‘protections’, such as mask-wearing, should be brief – otherwise populations become vulnerable (more naïve) to future waves of coronaviruses and other respiratory viruses. (Greece is a country of particular concern, which imposed strict mandates, and managed to stem the Covid19 tide through most of 2020. See the fourth chart in my Ages of People Dying in excess numbers during the Omicron Wave of Covid19, Evening Report 17 Mar 2022.)
Don’t Throw out the Baby with the Bathwater
My analysis suggests that most countries with high enough incomes to impose expensive public health mandates indeed ‘threw out the covid bathwater’. They also threw out the ‘old-normal immunity baby’. The health and other consequences of governments (and their retinues) working against nature rather than with nature may be quite long-lasting. Nature includes us. For the most part, the rest of nature is our friend, and our home; though not always an easy friend with which to cohabit.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.