I am pleased to announce that I have, or may have, or am probably about to have, the novel coronavirus. I acquired it, or potentially acquired it, from exposure to more than a few hours of news about: the novel coronavirus. As I understand it, it’s that easy to catch. It’s an honor, really. I have always wanted to be on the cutting edge, the vanguard, the foam on the crest of the wave of the non-future.
There are few ways in which I, a pragmatic agnostic, can get worked up about the apocalypse. All that silly Armageddon-and-rapture stuff doesn’t do it for me. But a doomsday virus, visited upon humanity by a wrathful spirit of nature who chooses to vengefully crush us within her grasp? That’s a really exciting moment for science, and I’m here for it.
Here’s what a lifetime of consuming terrible (but convincing) movies and books has taught me about the science at work here. Nature has what you might call a limiting principle. If humankind gets too big, too arrogant and too destructive, Mother Nature will put her foot down. She’ll perform a hard reset on earthly life. She’ll pick up the great Etch A Sketch of the biosphere and give it a good shake. She’ll conjure up hordes of spiders, murderous shrubbery, a Godzilla-type monster or a contagious disease to teach us all a lesson.
And, my god, could you imagine a more appropriate time than now, a time when we spend all day every day laughing in the face of ecological disaster? We’ve known for about a century that we’re rapidly making the planet uninhabitable. Anyone with any sense at all knows we need to take swift, decisive action to fix it. But instead, we’ve managed to spend the last few decades boring imaginary holes in otherwise structurally sound climate science in order to line human pocketbooks, inflate human egos and soothe human anxieties.
Now, there’s a leader of the free world who says that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese … ” Less than a decade ago, the current prime minister of the United Kingdom was trying to convince the public that a “mini-ice age” was coming. The president of Brazil, a major proponent of deforestation and novel-coronavirus-haver, calls his own scientists liars while the Amazon burns. We just keep pushing and nudging and shoving our ecosystems closer to the edge of the cliff, daring them to fall, convinced that we are gravity-immune.
Any casual student of the classics can recognize the unseen villain here: hubris. Even our initial response to the coronavirus itself reads like it was plucked from a Greek tragedy. “It’s a hoax,” our leaders said. “It’s a ‘Chicken Little’ story.” “It’s just the common cold, but the media wants you to think it’s something worse so Democrats can destabilize the economy and win back the presidency.” This brand of hubris is always punished by a higher power. That’s science.
This moment is made even more exciting by the realization that humankind has been begging for it for millennia. Since big-brained primates became a thing, we’ve been testing the Earth to see just how much abuse it can take. And, as it turns out, it can take a lot. It can survive just fine without bees or golden toads or giant ground sloths or countless other species that have disappeared just to make room for human habitats, or take up room in human bellies or both.
They’ve been disappearing for as long as Homo sapiens has been migratory and, well, so far so good, I guess. But this winning streak cannot possibly hold up forever. At some point, after all those years of saying “fuck you, planet,” we’ve got to expect the planet to answer “no, fuck You, buddy” as we melt into puddles of gristle and hair, ceding our position as the dominant species, renewing the equilibrium of the Earth, restoring balance to The Force and so on. And we may get to see it happen.
What an exciting time to be almost-not alive! Given our long history of pissing directly into the face of Mother Nature, the question should not be if an extinction-level event is coming for us, but how it’s going to happen. In my view, a virtually undetectable and fast-moving disease is a safe bet. Think about it. What else could it be? A meteor hitting the Earth reads more like bad luck than earthly forces exacting revenge, and anyway it’s too cliché. Tidal waves could annihilate a large number of people, but those can’t reach the Midwest or the middle of Russia and China, so that leaves too many people behind to overbreed and muck things up again in a few years. Same problem with nuclear winter.
For a few days, I was convinced the Terminators would get the job done, especially after one of them wiped the walls with Ken Jennings on “Jeopardy.” But that was only a figurative wiping; we’re still a couple of decades out from a more literal event. In the meantime, the leading contender for “final reaper of apex primates” is a virus with an ominous name.
I have been disappointed in the past, certainly. Many times, in fact. There was SARS and swine flu and that brief outbreak of monkeypox. All of them barely made a dent in our dumb species. Then came Ebola. The first reports described victims gushing blood from every orifice, and, I mean, hell, that’s practically biblical. I would be willing to bet that there’s a Midrash or a Hadith or at least a “Left Behind” novel that mentions “wicked men bleeding from their eyes” or something close. Surely, I thought, surely Ebola is it. But it, too, was quickly contained, without a single case contracted in the United States.
Despite all these close calls, my money is on novel coronavirus as the coup de grâce. My two-hour odyssey into Kroger yesterday confirmed my suspicions. Doomsday preppers in hunting gear and transition lenses everywhere, lines out the door, no ramen noodles left. Now schools have closed, and the biggest employers are shuttering. Even the most decadent-and-depraved Derby events are getting called off. The rate at which the wheels of society are grinding to a halt suggests to me that this is not another false alarm. And thanks to the rightward tilt of the planet’s politics these last few years, the drivers are all incompetent, narcissistic, science-denying, doorknob-licking baboons.
The conditions are right for humankind’s Big Finish. To be extra sure, I asked environmental scientists — truly amazing, top-of-their-field scientists — to confirm my suspicions. Isn’t this just nature striking back? Dr. Margaret Carreiro, a professor emerita of biology at the UofL, said: “The way you posed your question is not the way a scientist would, because you are giving all of nature purposeful sentience. But is it possible that we can so harm our planet that we destabilize civilized society such that we fight among ourselves for resources at the national, tribal and individual levels? Yes. Climate disruption is doing that right now. And disruptions of nature and society cause infectious disease epidemics as well.” So… yes? I’ll take it as a yes.
Another esteemed public health researcher, one who asked me to keep his name out of this, agreed. “Nature has no consciousness. It will not intend to kill us. However, we could set up the world to be a very inhospitable place and, in fact, we are well on the road to doing it. Consider a tree. A very benign thing when standing. However, it is very massive and when falling can do unpredictable things that humans cannot resist.
I’ve seen human loggers completely obliterated — literally exploded — when hit by a tree trunk falling down a hill. A tree can weigh, what, a million pounds tops? But spinning unpredictably, it can pulverize a human. We are talking hundreds of billions of tons of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The impact and persistence of that much out-of-balance material is the largest threat to humanity. Coronavirus is the acute problem that we should focus on, but you see how poorly we are dealing with it.”
And so what are the chances that coronavirus constitutes the finishing move in this mashup of the “The Game of Life” and “Mortal Kombat” we’re all in? [Dear editor: whatever you do, please leave in the “Game of Life”/”Mortal Kombat” reference; it is important to the story and very funny. Also please leave in this note, so people will know it’s funny.]
Dr. Carreiro (who is having none of my nonsense) simply said, “Not likely.” Mystery scientist (who is having only some of my nonsense) said, “Virtually zero. First we understand the germ theory of disease. Agents cause the diseases. We have developed a public health infrastructure based on that understanding. Second, Nature has no intent to kill us. It lacks both empathy for us and evil intent against us. We do stupid things. We used to allow rats to live in our thatched roofs. Some people eat bats. But overall, we have an understanding of what agents we are dealing with and we develop strategies using the different levels of prevention to isolate so as to prevent spread. Finally, germs tend to become less virulent as they move through a population, since killing us usually limits the spread.”
“Also the data from China are encouraging. China has had 80,000 cases and 3,100 deaths. Yesterday they added 18 cases and 11 deaths. They are testing 200,000 people per day. It looks that they may be on the down slope. We are not. We have had 1,573 cases, but 272 yesterday. We are on the upslope, probably the very beginning of it. They had it start in one region, we had 35 different points of origin. The precautions we are taking are indeed warranted.” Fine, no apocalypse.
That’s what the scientists say. But what do they know? Science can’t tell us literally everything. So, I asked my wife and daughters, since they are now the only people I am allowed to see anymore. As it turns out, Athena, age 7 (and pretty good at science), agreed with the professionals. When asked if she thought the coronavirus would mean the end of humanity, she said, “Nooooo! This is only one big hit! It’s possible that after this people will still get it but not as often. You might already know this, but coronavirus came from China. This captain guy, he contracted this new virus three days late. And it caused this big coronavirus, just going all over the world. Here are some places you might not want to go: Italy, China, maybe even Indiana.” Calliope, age 3, said, “No. Because the coronavirus doesn’t suck blood.” Valerie, age 38, said, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Could you go do something else? You’re scaring the kids.”
For my part, I am content to turn blue and drop quite early in the pandemic, if need be. Some eggs have to be broken to make the planet’s great frittata and in this scenario, I am the quintessential egg: a self-righteous keyboard warrior pecking out an article poking fun at the very thing that does me in. Just deserts! Poetic irony! A Hollywood ending! I wouldn’t be surprised if I slumped over at my keyboard before my deadline.
Then again, being stuck in a warm house with people I love, huddled around movies and board games and boxes of undelivered Girl Scout cookies wrapped in plastic — all this has me thinking there’s something worth sticking around for. Maybe my little girls and your kids, can be part of the next generation of scientists and science believers and reformists and by-god miracle workers who build benevolent, superintelligent machines that suck carbon out of the air, viruses out of bodies and hubris out of the greater primates. Maybe they can gather the mustard seeds of the Earth and grow them into mighty forests, full of human-pulverizing trees. Maybe they’ll continue our legacy as the dominant species, but with the respect and courtesy we owe our planet and the other living critters on it. If not, there’s always the next pandemic to look forward to. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.