Regaining our Perspective: Raising Awareness of our Precious Animal & Plant Heritage

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Law of Unintended Consequence

This piece follows from an article that appeared a little while ago in the New York Times, entitled "The Ecology of Disease".

The article refers to a developing model of infectious disease which shows that most epidemics that affect humans (e.g. AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, Lyme disease - plus hundreds more), are a result of the impacts man makes on his natural environment. It has been found that 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (i.e. jump the species barrier from animals to man), with 66% of the animal hosts being wildlife.

In other words, what we do out there in previously virgin wilderness, is coming back to bite us. Humans do not understand the ecological web of life and its complex interrelationships. The best we can do is for our academics to undertake specialist fields of study in response to observed events, but we can in no way have a large scale "predictive view" of the likely effect on an undisturbed ecosystem before we go in there boots and all and mess it up. I'm not sure that the majority of humans care enough to want to try and find out beforehand anyway - I think they're only too happy to get on with plundering natures larder of goodies.

An ILRI study revealed that more than 2 million people die annually from diseases spreading from wild and domestic animals. And the treatment of animals being kept in poor countries seems to have the effect of magnifying the animal borne diseases. Probably not surprising, since poor housing and treatment of animals increases stress which compromises immune systems, plus increased pathogen load and viral mutation in the soup of death and decay. Words like "newly virulent" or "newly drug-resistant" should also ring alarm bells.

Examples of how this spread occurs, can be seen in the Nipah and Hendra viruses spread from the flying fox (fruit bats), which have co-evolved alongside these viruses. Naturally they have very little effect on the bats, but when man encroached on the natural environment, it is suspected that a forest piggery was contaminated with Nipah when partially consumed fruit was dropped. The pigs ate this and mutated the virus which jumped the species barrier to man. Hendra was different, where suburbanisation lured forest dwelling bats into new habitats in backyards in Australia.
According to experts, emerging diseases have quadrupled over the last half century, largely due to human encroachment, especially into the disease hotspots which are mainly in tropical regions. And with speedy modern transport and booming wildlife trafficking, the potential for a serious outbreak in a large population centre is looming. Other examples include a 4% increase in the deforestation of the Amazon basin, causing a 50% increase in malaria. And it also includes a spread of the carriers (e.g. mosquitoes) to vectors like birds which are habitual garden visitors. In other words "the virus took advantage of species that do well around people" (Marm Kilpatrick, UC Santa Cruz). The American robin is playing a pivotal role in the spread of West Nile Disease in the US.

Lyme disease is a product of the fragmentation of large forests and predators fleeing the development, allowing the multiplication of white footed mice which become specialist reservoirs of the disease due to their poor immune systems. When man invades an ecosystem, most of the time he erodes biodiversity and the species playing protective roles are usually most affected. The species acting as carrier-reservoirs then proliferate. Nature finds a way.

According to Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at Columbia university, "it's not about keeping pristine forests pristine and free of people, it learning how to do things sustainably". I beg to differ and it's not in questioning the expertise of Mr Anthony. But it is about his possibly utopian view that those in the vanguard of plundering the natural ecosystems of the world are going to stop and undertake careful scientific studies assessing risks beforehand, or are going to listen to the warnings expressed by the academic community.

There's no sensitive middle of the road way to go about plundering forests sustainably - besides, humans are not a sensitive middle of the road species - we are the single greatest invasive species in the world today and we will stop at nothing to attain our goals - usually related to huge piles of money.

It's called profit and it's spelled out in the business plans of large corporate boardrooms across the globe, and those plans are not going to add an extra layer of cost by undertaking expensive and time consuming epidemiological assessments in order to achieve what is seen by the captains of industry as only a fair to moderate risk mitigation. They have shareholders to keep happy. The ordinary people are engaged at the coalface after the fact to execute the decisions. If they are affected in any way or disease spread occurs in larger populations, this is called "shit happens" and it's not hard to throw a blanket of doubt around the causal chain or to deny management's culpability on the grounds of their not doing it with malice aforethought. Who can prove they knew they were going to cause outbreaks of disease due to their actions? These are complex ecological systems and the interrelationships are not yet well understood, so can they be blamed?

I call it "rushing in where angels fear to tread", and we are very soon going to be paid back in spades for what we are doing to the Earth and its fragile ecosystems.

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