The plague year 2020 was yet another brutal rejoinder to the belief that brute forces can be pushed to the margins of, and eventually out of, humanity’s experience.
When today’s pandemic recedes, what should linger is a quickened appreciation of the fragility of life and social arrangements. And an awareness that things much worse than covid-19 have happened before, and will continue to happen. The human story is not entirely about human choices.
The 1918-1919 “Spanish flu,” which began in Kansas, killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, lowered U.S. life expectancy by 12 years, and did not spare, as covid-19 largely does, the young. The Black Death — the bubonic plague — of 1346-1353 was much worse, killing 10% of the world’s population, and over one-third of Europe’s, including 40,000 of London’s 70,000 residents.
In the 1980s, AIDS was so shocking because it refuted the complacent belief that infectious-disease epidemics had been banished. In 2019, however, 1.7 million people were newly infected with the AIDS virus and 690,000 people who were already infected died. But of the 38 million living with the virus, 25.4 million were controlling it with antiviral drugs.
Astronomy lowered mankind’s self-esteem (we are not the center of the universe), then biology did (our species has an undistinguished pedigree). Geology, too, has disturbed our sense of mastery. Genesis enjoins us to “subdue” the Earth, but this slowly cooling residue of the Big Bang gets a vote. As its continents wander — half an inch to four inches a year, according to plate tectonics — the planet’s interior of boiling gas and molten rock occasionally is heard from.
Volcanic eruptions at what is now Yellowstone National Park some 630,000 years ago covered half of what is now the continental United States with ash. When the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa erupted in 1883, sea surges, which killed most of the eruption’s eventual 36,000 victims, were felt in the English Channel. Krakatoa, was, however, only one-tenth as powerful as the April 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, which killed 10,000 instantly — incandescent ash flowed 100 miles per hour — and generated winds that uprooted trees. Particulate matter blocking the sun’s rays cooled the Earth: Water froze in some American cisterns on July 4.
Today, a large majority of the one-eighth of the nation’s population that lives in California resides near the San Andreas fault, and the question is not if but when it will lurch catastrophically.
A U.S. satellite poised between Earth and the sun can provide perhaps a 45-minute warning if the sun is going to plunge the planet into darkness. On Sept. 2, 1859, before there were light bulbs, a coronal mass ejection (CME) of 100 million tons of charged particles thrown off by the sun only produced spectacular sunsets. If — actually, when — it happens again, it can produce chaos in our thoroughly electrified, digitized world by induced electric currents: no functioning satellites, telephonic communications, water pumps, financial transactions, hospitals. No Netflix. (BEG ITAL)That(END ITAL) got your attention.
On March 13, 1989, a CME solar storm turned out the lights in the entire Canadian province of Quebec. Three days earlier, a NASA astronomer says, scientists had noticed “a powerful explosion on the sun. Within minutes, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at 1 million miles an hour.” This geomagnetic storm struck the Earth the evening of March 12, creating “electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America,” crashing Quebec’s power grid.
There are those whose believe in a benevolent God because Earth, as they see it, is “biophilic,” meaning friendly to life. They must, however, reckon not only with non-biophilic things (saber-toothed tigers, volcanoes, typhoons, viruses, etc.), but also with the fact that this (meaning: everything) is not going to end well. The universe will either continue to expand, ending in life-extinguishing cold, or will collapse into incinerating heat.
Meanwhile, here is some (sort of) good news, from the Economist. In history’s bloodiest century, the last one, 100 million to 200 million people died as a result of war. Measles killed in the same range, influenza near the top of the range. Smallpox, however, killed 300 million to 500 million.
The eradication of smallpox, by globally coordinated vaccination campaigns, “stands as one of the all-time-great humanitarian triumphs.”
Human choices cannot subdue all the brute forces that always lurk. Choices can, however make a difference. And they can dignify us, a thinking, coping species.