Monday, August 23, 2010

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (5): Gram-Negative

Therein lies the difference between trivialising past calamities and trivialising future ones.

(Philip Challinor
, Faut-il brûler la terre?)

And so they did it. They capped the well. The world is no longer leaking, at least not from that particular orifice, at least not for now, and beside the tangible damage – for the environment, the wildlife, the livelihoods – we can now survey the metaphorical spillage: more disjointed horror stories festering in the fissures between journalism, science and sanity, a whole new vocabulary of destruction: life that disappears 'from the bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top' – the subject of the last instalment in this series – and since then the stupendously worded prospect of a 'world killing event', care of Helium's Terrence Aym.
The bottom line: BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling operation may have triggered an irreversible, cascading geological Apocalypse that will culminate with the first mass extinction of life on Earth in many millions of years…

The ante is as upped as it gets – destruction on a planetary scale would occur within six months ­­­– the evidence just as scant as in the case of Sorcha Faal's North America is doomed hypothesis, and yet this new article has proved a great deal more persuasive and popular, garnering over 46,000 'likes' on Facebook, the attention of several media organizations and an ordinate number of retweets, including, again, several journalists – perhaps most infamously of all, Roger Ebert. You'd think that a person of the trade would begin by checking the sources, starting from the author of the piece himself. Stumbling upon his page on the Proclaiming the Truth website, then, they would be forced to take a couple of steps back and carefully consider the situation, trace the citations, that sort of thing. Even take time to notice that not a single one of Aym’s direct claims concerning how the situation in the Gulf of Mexico could trigger an apocalypse references any ‘experts’ other than himself.

But the demands of going to air and linking to things apparently are too pressing, and so the story spread, even among professionals who should have known better. And just like in the case of Sorcha Faal, whose page rings all sorts of nutter alarm bells and pushed the seeders to link to a more legitimate-looking repost, the chief virtue of Aym’s piece seems to have been its appearing on a site that resembles a vehicle for the divulgation of serious science, so long as you’re absolutely determined not to scratch the surface. Helium (motto: ‘Where knowledge rules’) is in fact a community of Web writers: not qualified, not peer-reviewed, not nothing.
At Helium, we believe that everyone can contribute what they know to share with millions of readers around the globe. […] At Helium, great writing rises to the top. And great writing reaps great rewards.

But wait: this isn’t great writing. Shrewd enough, I suppose. But well-communicated and popular doesn’t equal true. And at least one of Aym’s key propositions – that the end would come within six months – is inconsistent with the article’s own appeal to the Permian mass-extinction event, which took millennia to unfold. Aym simply made that crucial part up, and the medium instantly rewarded him: with the desperate urgency of the message came the hits, the links and the ‘likes’, and thus the claim to knowledge.

We still have eyes on the ocean floor where the Deepwater Horizon is buried, in fact they have multiplied and there are now as many nine simultaneous windows onto not much happening at all. Sometimes a mechanical arm will come into view and grab a metal cable. Sometimes one of the robotic components will initiate a piston-like movement lasting several minutes. But aside from that, there is nothing going on. Not right in that very spot. Elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico we know that there are over 27,000 abandoned oil wells that, according to an AP investigation, nobody, – not one company, not one government – is currently monitoring. The oldest were abandoned in the 1940s, and we can only speculate on the state of their closures. It is quite possibly that several of them are leaking as we speak, just as sealed wells on land do (the sealing procedures are much the same). Meanwhile, in northern Siberia,
[p]rodigious plumes of planet-warming methane are bubbling from sediments across a broad region of Arctic seafloor previously thought to be sealed by permafrost.
It turns out that the underwater permafrost beneath which massive carbon deposits are trapped is a lot less hardy than its variety above the surface, where the temperatures are colder, and so the methane is bursting through the cracks in the form of, yes, giant earth farts. (Cheers, Robyn.)

The world is still leaking, just more slowly. The methane won’t kill us in six months, but it will accelerate global warming – which will in turn accelerate the leaking. There just isn’t a timetable. Will our world end in 2012, as the ancient Mayans prophesised, the bottom line of Columbia Pictures foremost in their minds? It is doubtful. Prince Charles claimed in March last year that we had 100 months to get our act together. Then in May he said that we had 'less than 100 months'. That would be 98, Your Unelected Highness. Is it so hard to keep track? And what happens when we get to zero months, in June of 2017? Is he going to turn around and inform us that we are in fact screwed?

It’s not going to happen like that. Forget the Book of John, or a nuclear holocaust. It is far more likely to be a drawn out affair, with more than one root cause. Like the elderly, we might fall prey to several afflictions at once. And here’s the latest one, which comes with its own timetable: a world without antibiotics, in ten years.

Introducing New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, a new resistance factor that renders Gram-negative bacteria immune to most and eventually all known antibiotics. (It looks nothing like the picture above, by the way, I’m not even sure if NDM-1 has a look. That’s Chlamydia, as a matter of fact. So pretty.) As Maryn McKenna explains:
In writing about resistant bacteria, it's difficult to avoid overusing superlatives — but this resistance mechanism has spread widely, been transported globally, and brings common bacteria up to the brink of untreatable. It already has been found in India and Pakistan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the US, and has been distributed not just by travel but specifically by medical tourism. It has the potential to become an extremely serious global threat.

NDM-1 is not a bacterium itself, but spreads ‘within a single bacterial generation to organisms that have never experienced the drug they are acquiring defenses against,’ supercharging the ordinary evolutionary process that has allowed bacteria over the last couple of decades to pull ahead of antibiotics research. And if bacteria win that particular war, as they seem on the verge of doing, it will reverse many of the advances of Twentieth Century medicine: transplant surgery will no longer be possible, many forms of ordinary surgery will become far more dangerous, TB will become incurable and pneumonia will start to take care once again of our ageing population.

Like last year’s Swine Flu, NDM-1 thrives not just on globalisation, but more specifically on our uneven development: just replace the mega pig farms run by US companies in Mexico with the hospitals of India where the poorer citizens of richer countries go looking for affordable treatments. Those are the incubators. The Indian authorities have bristled at the suggestion that their country might be the epicentre of this particular threat, going as far as to alleging a pharma conspiracy against their medical tourism industry, but the reality is that the geography of these events is not to be traced on an ordinary map of the world: it follows capital and human flows on which no elected governments or state institutions can exercise any control. There is no culture or society in which these threats spread either. Just humanity as a biological medium, an anonymous seething multitude – kind of what bacteria look like to us, if you think about it.

Should we really be faced with a world without antibiotics inside of ten years, it will be something novel: the first true sign perhaps of our progress unravelling. Even in approaching disaster and the possible if not likely end the species, we have so far been moving steadily forward; and to the extent that we have been able to imagine a world without technology, it has been in our utterly misnomed post-apocalyptic fantasies, where it dawned after a sudden and traumatic rupture. But if a technology itself ceased to work, and in the normal course of business, it would have quite a different psychological import. You could not imagine cars or computers becoming unusable, not like that: there will always be forms of energy available to somebody, somewhere. And what about a spade, or the wheel? No, if antibiotics no longer worked it would be more as if language ceased to mean things, or arithmetic no longer added up. And it would reverse the course of time. No more timetables, no more apocalyptic ultimatums, no more genies that can’t be put back in the bottle. It seems optimistic to think that this would give us a different, more useful perspective on the measures to be taken, but if nothing else it might expand our arid imaginings of the end.


Philip said...

Never been an epigraph before, so thanks for the experience.

Word Verification: neshaph, an ancient Egyptian bandage of coarse texture and unruly temperament, used to ensure that enemies on their way to the Land of the Dead had an itchy time of it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

May there be many more, and by better writers. I actually meant to engage with your post but it didn't come off at all, regrettably. Hopefully by the next instalment.

Unknown said...

I want to say stuff, there's so much depth of thinking, so I just say to you that I am reading and thinking and enjoying.

eptiorig; the Ruler of all Rigs, the one that in the darkness binds them.

George D said...

Prince Charles of the United Kingdom's appeal to one hundred months might sound ridiculous. But it isn't his - he has merely recycled it from the One Hundred Months campaign. Their claim is that the world has approximately 8 years in which to start reducing emissions before more than 2 degrees of climate change is inevitable.

Climate campaigners always have to find a space between comfortable complacency, and calling the end of the world. The latter claim might seem unreasonable, and in some ways it is. But as glaciers in the Himalayas melt, and warmer air means greater rainful, floods like those we have just seen are to become more frequent. Those who have had everything destroyed, and lost family have seen "the end of the world" as surely as if a nuclear explosion had done the same thing.

I think that the most interesting thing about "end of the world" ideas is the collapse of possible futures. Hope is destroyed, timelines become foreshortened, and living becomes either mere existence in the shadow of such foreseen events, or an aggressive fight (to the death even) to make sure they can never occur. Since there is so little of the latter, I'm sure that there are few who have yet convinced themselves of the impacts of horrific impacts of climate change they speak of. In places like fire ravaged Russia, recognising such a future becomes possible. But as soon as such events fade into memory, their compelling nature will recede again.

George D said...

Well, it was 100 months.

We now have 52776 hours until the end of the [safe] world.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Prince Charles of the United Kingdom's appeal to one hundred months might sound ridiculous. But it isn't his - he has merely recycled it from the One Hundred Months campaign.

He actually brought it forward by about eight months, in order not to have to start a 92-month campaign I presume. And I think we can agree that that is actually ridiculous. But of course I am not saying that campaigns that try to manufacture a timeline in order to get people to act are a bad thing.

Megan Clayton said...

Plangent or strident, the laughter of Foucault,

heard late at night from the after-hours exit.

Such a perfect storm, the "gay cancer" story

it was too good a tale to belie the truth.

Book Foucault's ghost a direct flight to Asia;

put him down for a tummy tuck and lipo, no extra.

The world brought down by petty bourgeoisie:

too bad to be lying, too good to pass up.

Giovanni Tiso said...


George D said...

I have to say that all this is fascinating to me. I grew up in the shadow of an antichrist apocalypse, with books, pamphlets and meetings to explain the ways in which the present would suddenly end. The European Union, the Rockefellers, EFTPOS, and HIV/AIDS were all part of unknown plans.

I'm not yet able to disentangle those. Again, there are a few contexts, but the hard part is making them intelligible to myself.

giotto said...

This is a smart blog, which is why it is disappointing to read here that the ancient Mayas prophesied the end of the world in 2012. They did not. Certainly, with the deluge of nonsense on this issue, it is difficult to find discussions of this by credible experts.

But this site has some decent debunking:

For a take from someone who can read Maya inscriptions, see:

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is a smart blog, which is why it is disappointing to read here that the ancient Mayas prophesied the end of the world in 2012.

Yes, sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that they actually did - just linking back to past musings on the idiocy of Emmerich's film. Well worth reiterating though.

Taramoc said...

Very interesting as usual.

To take it a bit further, the overhype of these kind of reports, be it the world ending because of a leak in the Mexican Gulf or the Swine Flu, may end up desensitizing the general public from a possible real threat. When I read about the NDM-1, I thought that it was just the apocalypse flavour of the year and put it in the back of my brain, behind the upcoming NFL first game, or the new season of Weeds or Dexter. Many lengths behind them.

I wonder if, when the real apocalypse happens, assuming that it does, I won't know what the cause is. Or even worse, I may not care to know. By then I may just have decided it’s not worth to worry about anything I read with overly dramatic tones and live my life until I can.

WF: Plahu or Pla-hu? Reaction from everybody I introduce my uncle Placidomius to.