Ebola, the Zika virus, and HIV: brought to you by the Anthropocene and ANT

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I just finished reading Bill McKibben’s Opinion piece on the Zika virus.   In it McKibben argues that the spread of the virus is the outcome of how we’re destroying the environment.  We’re releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is causing the planet to warm up, which is leading to the spread of mosquitoes, including those carrying Zika.  The same principle be can applied to Ebola and HIV, in that both diseases originated from animals found in tropical jungles (bats for Ebola, Chimpanzees for HIV), and only emerged when humans encroached on their environment.


These outbreaks of diseases are, in other words, rooted in environmental degradation.  They can be understood by combining the idea of the Anthropocene–that humans are having a geologically significant impact on the Earth–with Actor Network Theory (ANT), a social science theory that views objects as having agency.  Under ANT objects are like humans in that they respond to events around them: reacting, retaliating, or supporting depending on the stimuli.  From an ANT perspective the Earth can be viewed as reacting to the global pressures humans are putting upon it. The Earth, in other words, is fighting back with disease.  Other disasters like flooding, drought, and cyclones can be viewed similarly, in that they are all driven by environmental degradation at local level (cutting down trees exacerbates flooding) and global (carbon dioxide exacerbates climate change).


2015 seemed to be a good year from a global governance perspective: the Paris climate talks were mainly a success, Sendai outcomes weren’t too bad, and the Sustainable Development Goals included broad and holistic objectives.  However, ISIS, the migrant crisis, drought in the Horn of Africa all indicate that we’re still messing with world around us.  The Earth will probably continue to fight back until we really start acting differently.


Further reading:

On the origins of HIV: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-29442642

On the origins of Ebola: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4456362/

The Anthropocene: http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

Actor Network Theory: http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/5222_Ritzer__Entries_beginning_with_A__%5B1%5D.pdf [apologies for my simplification of ANT, but it’s pretty complex for a short blog post]

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