Epidemics, by Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, shined floodlights on a realm that barely appears in our general history textbooks. They discussed a number of contagious diseases — where they originated, how they were transmitted, where they spread, and when. They included spooky eyewitness accounts of life during an epidemic.
The book presents us with a ghastly vision of life in a bizarre reality. Imagine the horror of living in a city where death is everywhere, thousands are dying every week, and the cause is a complete mystery. Inhale the reeking stench of rotting corpses. In cholera stories, we often find tales of folks who were healthy and happy at sunrise being buried at sunset. Will you be next? Will anyone survive? Why is this happening?
Contagious diseases were one of the many unintended consequences of living in high density populations, surrounded by high densities of non-human animals, in foul-smelling villages and cities where the streets were filled with sewage, garbage, and dead animals; amidst hordes of rats, lice, fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes; places with cloudy, stinky, crappy-tasting water.
Hunter-gatherers missed this form of gruesome excitement, because they lived within the natural order, a far healthier mode of existence. The advent of agriculture created an incubator for contagious diseases, and contagious diseases were a normal and expected component of living in or near a civilization (except in recent decades).
Is anywhere safe? We learn about remote Alaskan Eskimo villages, in inaccessible locations, where every man, woman, and child died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, infected by migrating birds. A pandemic is a super-sized epidemic. This flu pandemic spread around the world in just two months, in an age prior to modern air travel. Twenty-two million died, and only one tiny island escaped. My grandmother’s sister, Emma Amundson, died of the flu on November 19, 1918. This variety of flu was the deadly offspring of too many people living too close to too many chickens.
Today, influenza remains a pandemic disease, but it is not in a highly lethal form. Since 1918, we have made great gains in creating conditions that promote the transmission of viruses from one species to another, and all flu viruses are constantly mutating. It is impossible for vaccine-makers to work as quickly as the viruses are mutating. So, conditions are close to perfect for the appearance of a pandemic as deadly as 1918, or worse, and modern transportation systems are ready to rapidly accelerate the spread.
Our sacred cultural myths describe early America as a noble experiment in human progress — brave pioneers, and industrious people, working together to create a new form of society based on freedom, justice, and prosperity. Stories about epidemics have been swept under the bed. For example, Mother Nature generously rewarded our impressive achievements in rapid deforestation by hammering us with malaria, a major obstacle to colonization. Malaria competed with dysentery for being the most popular disease of the growing civilization.
Another deadly consequence of deforestation was yellow fever. In 1820, it killed one-third of the residents of Savannah. In the eighteenth century, Charleston suffered from yellow fever epidemics in 1706, 1711, 1728, 1732, 1790, 1791, 1792, 1795, 1798, and 1799. This disease was the reason why the United States got a fabulous bargain on the Louisiana Purchase, which included the territory of fifteen future states. Why?
In 1802, Napoleon sent an army to Haiti to put down a rebellion. He enjoyed a smashing victory over the rebels, whilst the Haitian mosquitoes took great pleasure in killing 40,000 of his men with yellow fever. At this point, he lost all interest for further projects in the frightfully unhealthy continent of North America, and sold French claims to the USA for a bargain price.
Smallpox devastated the Native Americans across the continent. The children of the colonists also had no immunity to it. “Smallpox was so common in the eighteenth century that only the most severe epidemics were noted, including seven in Boston between 1721 and 1792.”
Typhus was a gift from lice, and it had nicknames like jail distemper and ship fever. The Micmac tribe was almost completely wiped out because of the lice that came with French clothing and blankets. Some speculate that the typhus epidemics during the Revolutionary War delayed the final victory by two years.
In his book, The Impact of Disease on American History (1954), Howard N. Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began: “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals. They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”
If you live in a developed country, it’s obvious that modern life is a different reality. In recent decades, we have had much freedom from epidemics of deadly contagious disease. We have been protected by the temporary fortress walls of energy-guzzling high technology — municipal water systems, waste treatment plants, garbage collection, sanitary landfills, antibiotics, vaccines, and well-equipped public health bureaucracies.
But our energy-guzzling safety net is totally addicted to an abundant supply of cheap energy. Abundant energy is the result of a freak bubble in the history of civilization — a catastrophic one-time-only binge on non-renewable fossil energy. The world is now moving beyond Peak Cheap Energy, never to return. Consequently, what is energy-guzzling today will eventually move down the hall to the museum, or quietly disintegrate and rust in peace.
This transition has clear implications for the future of public health, and these are magnified by ongoing population growth, and rising poverty and malnutrition. The millions of people now living in developed nations will some day see their magic safety bubble burst, one way or another. Eventually, they will return to the traditional filth, squalor, violence, and exploitation of normal civilized life — if they choose to continue on the same path, which is the easiest option.
People who are working to envision a healthy, sane, sustainable future should contemplate the possibility of a lightly-populated tomorrow without cities, travel, trade, and agriculture. The history of civilization is precious, because it provides us with countless extremely important lessons on how not to live. Imagine a bright new world that is wild, free, and happy. Never forget that the soul of our culture is just software — a basket of peculiar ideas that is always subject to change.
Marks, Geoffrey and Beatty, William K., Epidemics, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976.