Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ebola - Nature's Response to Human Overshoot?

Years ago, I read a couple of books about Gaia, by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. The Gaia concept is that the Earth is a self-regulating, living organism, in and of itself.  Check out the Wikipedia link for an understanding of the Gaia hypothesis

This biological theory suggests that the Earth can and does respond to large scale biological opportunity and large scale biological stress with natural forces that can themselves be massive in scale.

Ebola is a  highly infectious viral disease that has no cure. It kills up to 90% of victims by massive hemorrhaging and loss of bodily fluids.  Ebola, so far,  has been confined to the African continent. Treatment puts medical workers at very high risk.  It's hard to imagine a more horrible way to die. There have only been a couple of serious outbreaks of Ebola over the years.  The worst ever is happening right now in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. Nearly 800 have perished horribly from Ebola, and the outbreak is far from contained.

Ebola Patient Being Treated

Right now, contracting Ebola requires that one come in contact with contaminated bodily fluids from an Ebola patient.  The pathogen is difficult and very expensive to contain, very dangerous for medical workers to treat, and once a victim dies, just disposing of the corpse safely is a vexing problem.

On top of that, you add the cultural distrust of western medicine in African communities,  Ebola becomes even more of a challenge to contain. 

Because Ebola is a virus, it is constantly mutating into new forms. There is no vaccine that can make a person immune to Ebola.  The medical people on the front lines are some of the most courageous people one could ever imagine.  They go into it  knowing that if they are infected by the Ebola virus, they are very likely going to suffer terribly and lose their lives.

Ebola Virus

Could Ebola become a pandemic? Could it get loose and, like the plague did to 14th century Europe, could it wipe out a very high portion of  humanity?  The answer is yes. It could happen, particularly if it mutates into and becomes infectious in an airborne form.  If that were to happen, a person infected with Ebola but not yet symptomatic could get on a commercial flight and infect many of the other passengers, and those newly infected passengers could get on other airline flights to other places and potentially spread Ebola to the most highly populated areas of the Earth in a matter of a few days. 

The fact is, just a few days ago, a man infected with Ebola did get  on a flight from Liberia. He carried the disease with him to Lagos, the capitol of Nigeria. Every person he came into contact with from boarding of the flight in Liberia, to everyone in the airport and other places in Nigeria where he travelled is now being monitored.  So, the story of the current, largest ever Ebola outbreak, is still unfolding.

I very much hope they can contain the current Ebola outbreak, and minimize the suffering and loss of life. If things work out that way, and the outbreak is put down, that is hardly the end of the story.

As time goes on, as the population density in Africa rapidly expands,  the possibility of new Ebola outbreaks is very real.

Disaster fatigue is a  consequence of too many deadly dangerous events piling on in short succession. We are seeing that happening right now. We're seeing bigger, more powerful tropical storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, mega-tornados, and other natural disasters than ever before. High human population density translates into huge costs for cleanup and recovery. In economically disadvantaged countries, the financial resources available to deal with any kind of human disaster are limited. Moreover, given the increasing number of disasters around the world, the rich nations find themselves less and less able to respond with the resources and financial support each disaster demands, especially when they happen in distant lands. Haiti is not a distant land. It's a couple hundred miles distant from our shores.  The recovery from the massive earthquake disaster that devastated Haiti in 2010 has been woefully inadequate. The people of Haiti have  largely been abandoned by the rest of the world.

So, where does that leave humanity as population growth and massive, global scale problems like climate change  create the conditions for more and more mega-disasters and economic disruption?

Imagine twenty years from now, when the human population has expanded from 7.2 billion as it is now to something like 9 billion. Imagine the impact of climate change an order or two in magnitude worse than it is  now. Imagine, in those increasingly vulnerable conditions, that Ebola breaks out again in a mutated form that can be spread through the air, like a common cold virus.

Ebola is a nightmare of the very worst kind.  Could it end up being tantamount to  Gaia's way of relieving the extreme, broadly realized stress we humans have put on the planet's natural systems? Could Ebola ultimately become what the plague was to 14th century Europeans?   It's an ugly scenario, but unfortunately, it is a genuine possibility.

If we humans don't do something to relieve the extreme pressure we are putting on our resources and our biological systems, nature may well inflict it's own terrible, global scale stress reliever in the form of something like an airborne strain of Ebola.  If that happens, we will only have ourselves to blame. 

If Lovelock and Margulis are right about Gaia, the Earth biosphere will survive, even if humanity is brought to its knees in the process. It's a circumstance I would not wish on my worst enemy.  For the sake of future generations, I hope we wake up and make things right on planet Earth, before it's too late.

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