Going Viral, Part 2: The End of Civilization as We Thought We Knew It

Digital illo from photos: Self-Destruct Mode

Self-destruct mode is easy. Living wisely is hard.

While I’ve been having my tawdry fever-dream worries about unequal health care and expanding populations competing for dwindling resources amid name-calling politicians, suspicious citizenry, and fearful doomsday announcers, there are plenty of other aspects that nag at me as parts of the larger knotty problem. (Aside: is it knotty of me to point that out in the first place?) How do we reconcile the desire for a well-balanced, healthy, safe, educated, and relatively comfortable populace with those ever growing numbers?

This planet is finite. I hear highly educated people saying that we have both the brain power among the best of our species to make our equally finite natural resources capable of stretching to serve the needs of the whole world’s population. I hear some of these same bright lights claiming that the potential is here and now ready to enable humans to live far longer than the current average. I’ve no delusions of mathematical or scientific adequacy, let alone grandeur. But my limited powers of discernment and logic make me skeptical of the veracity and practicability of these claims; even more so, dubious of their desirability. Explain to me why I’m supposed to be so excited to live 300 years.

I’m not too enthralled with the idea of outliving many of my beloved family, friends, and favorite connections, whether the latter are places or experiences that eventually become outmoded or impossible for any reason. Not crazy about having to expand my thinking to find ways to occupy and better myself for not just decades but tens of them. And where’s the appeal in living a zillion years if I have to work three-quarters of a zillion to keep myself in milk and cookies? I have little faith that the American Social Security system will sustain me through the span of a now-typical life in comfort, let alone the attenuated sort being proposed. Where is the food, water, shelter, and acreage necessary to support more of us for so much longer going to be found? If I don’t die for lack of some such thing, will I languish in boredom until I wish I could die? No, really, I’m asking.

If even a sizable handful of humans live that long, I’m inclined to think their wish for such expansive longevity has less to do with all of the additional goodness they can shower on the world and its inhabitants than with how much more they believe the world and all of its inhabitants can do for or give to them. If even a couple of those millegenarians succeeded, I don’t imagine them skipping around the globe and tossing vials of AIDS cures like rose petals out to the milling crowds of children who have been born infected, or composing chorales so mystically entrancing that everyone in earshot will suddenly burst into united song and lay down their enmities, forgotten for eternity. I have more of a pessimistic image of them spending their length of days and years figuring out ways to acquire, win, or steal more, to hoard more, use more, and waste more—without being called to account for it all. Oligarchy is the longest socioeconomic tradition I can discern in human history, and I don’t think any opportunist able to spend more years perfecting that pursuit would likely be inclined to do otherwise. In fact, I would guess that those best able to push their way first in line to receive the treatment and support it will take to live 300 years will already be wealthier than the vast majority.

So what might we get? A rebellion from the planet’s resources themselves, perhaps, like the accelerated depletion of space for the competing needs of farming, manufacture, and residence that outstrip the miniaturization and optimization of those physical systems. What happens is not inevitably so, but historically speaking, it’s typically competition and division. Somebody wins, and more somebodies, both human and other, animate and not, lose. And, also in the long historical tradition, it’s the rich and privileged who win and the poor and disadvantaged who lose. No matter what you think of Darwin and evolution, by the way, there’s plenty of recorded and even remembered history to demonstrate that riches and privilege are no more a guarantee of moral fitness and communal palatability than poverty or lack of resources ever proved that one was inherently rotten or nasty.

Do we just lie back and let chance decide everyone’s fate, with a good shove from the encouraging hand of whoever can afford it to favor their own interests? Sounds to me like a good starter recipe for fomenting an increased appetite for eugenics and eventual genocide. I would hope that we could learn to prefer a taste for a good, balanced stew of self-restraint, collective and collaborative work for the widest benefit, compassion for the weak, and the kind of independence that’s less about cache-building and stockpiling and fortresses, more about how each of us can supply more of our own needs without denying  others’, and how one person’s brilliance can be harnessed to shed light on the widest possible sectors of life.

If we’re too preoccupied with how to get other people to conform to our beliefs and ideas, how to keep our Stuff safe from anyone else using or benefiting from it, and how to make more room for more and better Stuff solely for ourselves, none of this is going to happen. I tend to think that few of us who are safe and well-fed and educated and privileged spend enough mindful time recognizing that we are so only because of all the other living beings who work and sacrifice to make it possible. I can’t fix basic household plumbing. I can live without it, I expect, but probably only until I start to get too cold, hungry, scared, ill, weary, or lost to manage one more trip to the nearest stream for semi-safe drinking water or one more trip to a quiet spot where I can relieve myself far enough from the same drinking stream. I can’t find my way from my own front porch to where my spouse works without constantly consulting GPS, so getting from home to the nearest place I could safely forage for food not tainted by the traffic and household waste of suburbia would be quite the stretch indeed, especially on foot. I rely on so many others to keep me alive and functional that I can’t even wrap my brain around the gap between my abilities and the comfort in which I live, and I suspect that most other middle-class persons, never mind the much-maligned One Percenters, would struggle in the same way.

Seems like an opportune point in our history to pause and reflect on why it is not only a benevolence but a necessity that we do our best to feed, clothe, educate, heal, and make very good friends indeed with the rest of our kind, and perhaps most of all, those we too easily forget to think of as our kind at all. We’ll pay for the privilege one way or another. I, for one, would rather do so by choice and with the hope of friendship as its basis than by force and in fear, knowing that I have stepped on too many backs on my way upward to have hope of anything in the end besides a very, very long fall.

I’m feeling better already, just thinking about it.

Going Viral, Part 1: The Texas Sore Throat Massacre

Digital illo from a photo: Going ViralI’m sorry if I breathed on you. I was unknowingly the “I” of the storm. Patient Zero. One hand on the door knob; ten thousand infected. The maker of monsters, incubator for incubi. Thankfully, I have not yet come across a single one of my hundreds and thousands of contacts throughout this winter who was evidently poisoned into illness through contact with me. I never had any of the usual indicators of being contagious during the whole time I had my various and numerous waves of feeling lousy: no fever, no evidence of strange-colored, pungent crud emerging from anywhere in or on my person…unless you count the slightly hallucinatory character of my thoughts in their natural state. My doctors, when I finally saw them, didn’t seem to think I had been particularly dangerous.

So I wasn’t quarantined. I didn’t get hermetically sealed in a makeshift NASA bubble-style ICU. I didn’t even get quite miserable enough to go to the doctor with my complaints until about ten days ago, despite having felt uncharacteristically unwell so many times through the winter, when I generally manage to go the whole year without suffering more than, at most, one cold. I just dragged myself around with a wan little, pasted-on smile.

But here’s the thing: that’s how Bad Stuff can get passed around. Not every little germy critter that sneaks its way into our bodies, even in this very knowledgeable, clever day and age, is necessarily that easy to spot, let alone to treat. Just because modern medicine can recognize so many more diseases and injuries and conditions than previous generations knew doesn’t mean that every medically trained person everywhere would recognize even the majority of them quickly and easily, never mind how unlikely any of us commoners are to notice and understand them ourselves. So for all I know, while I thought I was being the appropriate combination of careful for others’ safety and stoically dedicated to keeping up my own commitments during the whole fun winter, I might as well have been opening the door to unleash Pandora’s Pandemic. I might have been Typhoid Mary the Second.

Let me be clear about a couple of other things, too, though.

First, I grew up thinking that the nickname of Mary Mallon was as good an epithet for a vile and deliberate criminal mastermind as any. But in more recent years I’ve had reason to revisit that idea and wonder if she mightn’t possibly have been as much victim as villain, after all. The current political climate of preferring divisive self-righteousness and sniffy dudgeon on all sides of any issue about all of the evils perpetrated, always, by Them, not Us, makes it remarkably hard to establish and enforce any policies that do any genuinely positive things to make societal problems any better—poverty, education and healthcare being always top of the list. They’re always somebody else’s fault and everyone else’s problem. I can easily imagine a modern plague getting the better of this entire country as much because we refuse to cooperate with each other and pay attention to some basic survival instincts and practicalities as because anything were especially virulent or unusual.

If we refuse to converse and cooperate, we have no one to blame but our own desire not to be subservient to any greater good. The law of unintended consequences visits its ugly repercussions on us all at times, and most of all when we are busy wishing everybody who isn’t in our happy little 100%-shared-view groups would just stay quiet and out of the way.

Reality works quite differently, as history should have taught us all long ago. If, for example, (a) we don’t provide health care for the indigent/impecunious and (b) they become ill but must find some way to pay for health care, then (c) those able to do so will continue to work when ill. They have no other clear way to pay bills, feed families, and get tasks done than to do the work themselves as always. If (d) the only kinds of work that marginalized populations tend to be able to get are in servitude, then (e) their work will most often be in service work like hourly hire positions as housekeepers, janitors, maintenance workers, food service employees, day laborers, child care workers, and personal health assistants in private homes, nursing care or rehab facilities, and hospitals.

That’s right: if we don’t take care of the poor unless they pay, they will continue to work as long as they can drag themselves there, and the work they do is often both the lowest paid—where, as a bonus, it takes longer to earn enough, while sick, for their own care—and the highest social contact-oriented in all of society. If we want to be truly Dickensian, we can repeat the Typhoid Mary solution as well and imprison the ill to keep them from working; at least in that instance, we can make the choice to either care for that new prisoner or risk his/her infecting the prison population, which again in Dickensian terms could “decrease the surplus population,” but of course containment will remain an ever-growing issue, if the prisoners are dying in droves and the staff either succumb or, more likely, refuse to return.

Meanwhile, let’s just imagine, as some folk are inclined to do, that the majority of the poor anywhere are illegal immigrants and layabouts who only take jobs away from natural-born citizens and live as criminals by choice. We certainly wouldn’t want to either train and motivate any natural-born citizens who are layabouts to do any of these highly desirable jobs that have been stolen from them or, perish the thought!, educate and give incentive to both groups. Thankfully, we have a whole crew of people in many sectors of the political realm working hard to see that there’s plenty of money allocated to such progressive and humane and productive activities as developing larger PACs and private donation coffers to better control election results, and keeping business strong in the blessed US economy by letting larger and larger mega-corporations swallow up dwindling independents until they resemble nothing so much as a snake that has snacked on a water buffalo. I know that I, for one, am greatly relieved that we are nationally so opposed to monopolies, or I might mistakenly think they were popping up by the dozens. It’s also comforting that the same herd of politicos of all stripes have among their numbers plenty who think that the best way to finance such boons to humanity is to cut budget waste in areas like state funded universities, social services, and other massive boondoggles like universal health care. Clearly, educating, mediating, and healing larger groups of people to interact and live in good health, productivity, and harmony is an evil conspiracy.

You could say that feeling unwell makes me, unlike the hardworking poor, prone to lying around and getting irritable, misanthropic, pessimistic, snarky, and critical of the state of this so-called Union. I certainly won’t argue if you accuse me of thinking we’re a lot of selfish, under-informed, entitled rich people and a counterbalance of too many people who can’t support themselves and their families with the paltry resources left for them after the top feeders have had their fill. If, as some social commentators and economists and even scientists claim, the concept of surplus population and limited resources is a fallacious or at least far from inevitable construct, since we theoretically have the brain power to make what already exists on this planet into resources and better distribute them, then I can think of few better, more immediate, or more visible places than health care, civility, and education in which to begin this process. And I can’t think of any valid excuse for anyone who believes in the value of a single human being not believing in the potential value of each human being and thinking all worthy of the effort. Good citizenship and care for others should not be a partisan Issue.

Knowing thus full well that we’re all capable of being stupid, lazy, entitled, paranoid, or just plain bad (just read or listen to the news, if you’ve somehow forgotten this), I still don’t think we should just assume that anyone is any or all of those. Isn’t it better to encourage and defend kindness, generosity, trust, humility, respect for differences, and joy in our commonalities?

Even I, at my most crabby old complainer moments, think it worth a try to do better. To be better. I would hope others might think me worth the effort.