Greta Thunberg appeals to the Nordic fantasies of the rich middle classes in Britain; a world of operating room cleanliness, leggy blondes anxious to discuss Marx over an ice-cool shot of aquavit, followed by an atmosphere-burning flight to the Maldives to wail over the absence of marine life, and a contract to write about it in the Guardian.
The talk this April on Waterloo Bridge was of excess carbon in the atmosphere, yet it’s not the climate that will give way – CO2 is a distraction – but the earth on which we stand. You don’t have to be an incense sniffing follower of Gaia to realise that the planet is a creature like any other, with a respiratory system; forests, vegetation and atmosphere; a circulation; rivers and oceans, as well as a digestive system; the soil into which nutrients flow to feed its organs; trees, grasses, flowers, animals, birds, bacteria and insects.
Humans are its greatest enemy. We have grown from a population of around 5 million 10,000 years ago to a vermin species today of 7.6 billion and counting. Every smiling baby born brings a destructive capacity which has in the last 40 years brought a 68 per cent loss of wildlife.
Our life as vermin began in the 18 th century with the discovery of vaccines. These wonderfully effective and safe antidotes to the spread of infectious disease meant a free pass for us from the strict accounting of life and death. Things began slowly at the start, but the following centuries saw the discovery of the principles of sanitation, antibiotics, safe surgery, more vaccines and lately the prospect of doubling life expectancy by anti-ageing drugs. The planet will not survive these later discoveries.
Yet we still regard medicine as beneficial. A few months ago a news item welcomed the prospect of an anti-malarial vaccine. Such a vaccine would add tens of millions of children to the planet, each with a reproduction potential of four or five more children. From the earth’s point of view ‘welcome’ is not a word that it would use if it could speak.
We fear death, a fear engendered by advances in medicine which offer us the Tantalus fruit of everlasting life. True, young people do not die within 24 hours of the sweating sickness of Tudor times, or by being carried off by cholera in six hours, but we pay for it now at the other end of life with the horrendous torture of life-prolonging technology applied to the old.
Death was swifter and arguably better in the past. In the 17 th century, few people survived cancer for more than a few weeks, complicating infections took care of that. You fell ill, perhaps cancer blocked a lung, pneumonia followed, the priest was called, just enough time to say farewell to your family and ask theirs and God’s forgiveness and within a week you were gone in a haze of fever. Pneumonia was known as the old man’s friend.
Yes, there were the chronic afflictions that did not immediately kill; the running sores, the graveyard cough of TB, kidney stones, the madness of the syphilitic, the blind and the lame. But over the centuries survival of the fittest was working its magic. The human race adapted, growing stronger and only slightly more numerous.
Now, as gene engineers take tentative steps to bypass Darwin and produce a standard disease-free human, we aim for life without end. Given time they will succeed, my guess would be in fifty years, and they need to be stopped. Meanwhile we can look forward to a Darwinian struggle between the world’s nations for food, water and living space. We have the means of mass extinction now and as pressure grows we will employ them.
The planet has it weapons too. Remember Ebola? The disease that not only killed its victim in 24 hours but killed the doctors and nurses as well? We got a vaccine out in time to stop it, but like Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator in the film of the same name said: ‘I’ll be back.’
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