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.