By Bill McKibben
I’ve spent much of my life chronicling the ongoing tragedies stemming from global warming: the floods and droughts and storms, the failed harvests and forced migrations. But no single item on the list seems any more horrible than the emerging news from South America about the newly prominent Zika virus.
Spread by mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms, Zika causes mild flu-like symptoms. But pregnant women bitten by the wrong mosquito are liable to give birth to babies with shrunken heads. Brazil last year recorded 4,000 cases of this “microcephaly”. As of today, authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela were urging women to avoid getting pregnant.
Think about that. Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable. Or rather, it is something out of a science fiction story, the absolute core of a dystopian future. “It is recommended that women postpone – to the extent possible – the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” the Colombian health authorities said, adding that those living in low altitude areas should move higher if possible, out of the easy range of mosquitoes.
Now think about the women who are already pregnant, and who will spend the next months in a quiet panic about whether their lives will be turned upside down. Try to imagine what that feels like – the anger, the guilt, the pervasive anxiety at the moment when you most want to be calm and serene.
And now think about the larger, less intimate consequences: this is one more step in the division of the world into relative safe and dangerous zones, an emerging epidemiological apartheid. The CDC has already told those Americans thinking of becoming pregnant to avoid travel to 20 Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Eventually, of course, the disease will reach these shores – at least 10 Americans have come back from overseas with the infection, and one microcephalic baby has already been born in Hawaii to a mother exposed in Brazil early in her pregnancy. But America is rich enough to avoid the worst of the mess its fossil fuel habits have helped create.
As usual, it’s the most poor and most vulnerable who bear the brunt. In Brazil army troops are going door to door draining puddles and flowerpots of stagnant water where mosquitoes might breed; in Jamaica the minister of health said plaintively “I’m going to be very frank, we don’t have enough fogging machines to fog every single community in Jamaica” with the pesticides that might help control the outbreak.
And so the residents of the rich world will, inevitably, travel less frequently to the places just beginning to emerge from poverty. The links that speed development will start to wither; even the Olympics, theoretically our showcase of international solidarity, is likely to be a fearful fortnight in Rio this August.
Zika’s not the only force tending in that direction, of course. It’s hard to imagine who’s going to visit Burkina Faso or Mali any time soon, after al-Qaida and Isis have blown up the major western hotels. Expats are starting to desert Beijing and New Delhi because who wants to raise their kids in smog so bad that a facemask is a fashion accessory.
Obviously we need to extend every possible aid to people across the Americas – we need to make sure they have fogging machines and testing equipment and teams of doctors who can help. But even more obviously we need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways. The Paris climate accords already seem dated and timid in the face of this news. We’re in an emergency, one whose face morphs each week into some new and hideous calamity.
A civilization where one can’t safely have a baby is barely a civilization.