10 January 2009

I'm crossing my fingers for Bird Flu

As you know, there are many troubles facing us in the not too distant future. I don't mean little troubles, like the fact that my winter boots are tragically out of fashion. I mean big troubles like our human race is doomed. 

If you think about it, our culture has been "on the brink" forever. Back in Biblical or Medieval times there was the ever constant danger of another tribe or culture raping and pillaging their way through your lands. Or disease. Or natural disaster, famine, or just a bad cut that wouldn't heal. A bad cut could easily kill you before penicillin was discovered only 80 years ago. Only 80 years ago! 

Before the relatively recent discovery of various vaccines and treatments (viruses weren't even theorized until 111 years ago in 1898), there was a pretty good chance that you'd not live to be 50. Most people before then snuffed-it before the ripe old age of 5 . Yes, sorry kids, five.

In the last few decades we've gone through several different fads of apathetic panic: nuclear annihilation in the cold war, AIDS, the ozone hole, terrorism, global warming, climate change, SARS, toxic pollution, world food shortage, etc. These sit in pale comparison to the Great World Wars and all the various civil wars and ethnic wars that have been flaring up around the globe, pretty much constantly. But we've always been on the edge of disaster.

But I've got my money on Bird Flu. 

Well, I don't actually have any money on it, but you know what I mean. Let's back up a bit. First, accept that our current rate of population growth and resource use just can't keep growing forever.  Not on this one planet anyway. Thanks, Mr. Spock, but this conversation is assuming that, at least for the time being, one planet is all we have. (By the way, since we've been evolving on this planet for millions of years, don't expect our physiology to work like a charm elsewhere).

So our population can't keep growing. But it will. As long as there is food, there will be more people. You can pass all the Chinese baby laws you want, the fact is our population follows the same dynamic as every other animal: more food, more animals; less food, fewer animals.

So how is our culture finally going to kick the bucket? 

Ebola won't do it. Ebola has been trying to start a fire for a while now, but it's just too deadly. Ebola has such a hard time spreading because it kills 50-90% of its carriers before they have a good chance of walking around at work coughing and pretending they're some kind of hero for not taking a sick day.

But Bird Flu can do it. It did once already. 90 years ago it killed more people than died in World War One: over 50 million people. Not a bad tally! I don't care what game you play, you've not got that many kills in any high score. Check out this map animation showing how H5N1 (a.k.a. Spanish Flu that time) laced the continental US in under one monthSee if you can beat that.

One other huge advantage that Avian Influenza has is how it gets around. If you were going to design a virus that could spread well, you'd want a vector (transmitter) that travels the world, inhabits all the same places that people do, rubs shoulders with things like house cats and hunting dogs, and plays a key role in the human food chain. Birds. Nice choice, H5N1!

This might sound sick, but wait. Think about it. Our population isn't going to stay steady now, nor will it decline through our own choices and voluntary control. So as our population increases we will eventually run into something that will cause either slow, managed decline (like a Great Depression that never ends), or a rapid decline like nuclear war, biological weapons malfunction, massive catastrophic climatic collapse, or wars over water, food, land, oil, uranium, or what have you.

So, Bird Flu is the way to go. Yep. No nasty post-nuclear war cancers for the survivors. No wars, no terrorism, no ethnic cleansings or religious craziness (sure, the religious businesses will boom as they sell hope and repentance. They've got the bases covered there). But it won't be a case of one group of people doing horrible things to another group (The Nazi's were cruel and inefficient compared to a virus anyway). Just good, old fashioned survival of the fittest on a biological level, not a political one.  It will just be a good virus doing what it does best. And it's doing it already.

I'm not trying to spread panic. These guys will tell you when to panic. And these guys will make a tidy profit selling stuff online when it comes around. I'm just saying: If we're going to go out anyway, why not go down fighting something together, united as a species? Bird Flu doesn't care what race you are, or what beliefs you hold. It doesn't care what you look like, or if you know the chords to Stairway to Heaven. In fact, Bird Flu (the 1918 strain) had a particular fondness for young healthy adults, so it's not picking on the old or the children unfairly.

When our kind is to be culled, I'm crossing my fingers for Bird Flu.

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