Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pale Rider

Last night I finished the monumental Selma Lagerlöf-biography that I have been reading for some time now. Shortly after turning sixty in November 1918, Selma came down with the Spanish Flu and there is a brief mentioning in the book that she was sick for quite a while. Still, life seemed to be going on pretty much like before with Selma attending a Nordic congress for authors in Copenhagen and, then, big public celebrations of women’s suffrage in May 1919.

Considering that the mortality rate of the Spanish Flu was many times that of Covid-19, this is all testimony to how much more we value life today and that we are also rich enough to be able to act on that valuation. While there were definitely quarantines and travel restrictions also a hundred years ago, the global scope of what we are seeing now is clearly unprecedented. For instance, just today we learned that the schools in Italy will remain closed until September.

As to the bigger question of how to prevent future pandemics, I think I have to disagree with the Breakthrough Institute’s latest call for agricultural intensification. While they are correct that human-wildlife interaction is the culprit and that extensive low-yield farming would be even worse, packing more animals into factories simply cannot be the answer. As I have written many times before, as much as our intuition tells us that we need to harmonize with nature, the opposite is in fact true, that we need to quickly disentangle the human and the natural world through synthetic biology and, ultimately, atomically precise manufacturing. This is not to say that you cannot still have your own garden or grow your own tomatoes but just that we need to end large-scale metabolic processes in nature.

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