Monday, October 07, 2002

This is a new piece, unpublished so far...

by William Severini Kowinski

It's perhaps an intemperate metaphor-and one tending toward the wrong end of the thermometer-to suggest that the West Nile virus outbreak throughout North America is the tip of the iceberg. But so far, few seem to realize why this might be so.

Media attention has focused on the geographical progress of the virus which has infected thousands in the U.S. and Canada, and killed at least 64 by mid- September. In California there's concern about whether the blood supply is contaminated. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont suggests it could be a bioterrorism plot. While there are many factors potentially involved, one is conspicuously unmentioned in most reports: global heating.

But even though the dots are all there, nobody is connecting them.
The September 14 San Francisco Chronicle reported the first confirmed case of West Nile virus in California. The front page of the same edition proclaimed "Hottest summer since 1930s" and "2002 drought worst since Dust Bowl."

Why press reports aren't making the connection is suggested in another pair of story in the next day's Chronicle: one story reports that the West Nile virus is killing more than 110 species of birds, including red-tailed hawks and great horned owls "by the thousands," and naturalists are worried about the endangered California condor. On the very next page, there's a story headlined "EPA report ignores global warming, with White House OK" by Andrew C. Revkin, reprinted from New York Times. It begins "Nearly every mention of global warming has been stricken from the annual federal report on air pollution..." quotes an EPA official "There's a complete paranoia [in the White House]about anything on climate...and everything has to be reviewed widely."

But at least one observer close to the ground at least alluded to the connection. When press attention was focused on the outbreak in Louisiana earlier this summer, a state health official commented, "As long as the warm weather lasts, we're going to have a problem."

As global heating continues, we're going to be having the problem for a long time. West Nile virus is only one of a number of diseases carried by mosquitoes and other bugs that are flourishing because of global heating. In many places in North America, the summers are not just hotter, they're longer. The winters are also warmer in places like Pennsylvania, so the usual diebacks in wood ticks, for instance, during the cold months isn't happening as much. Ticks can carry and infect humans with Lyme Disease, among other health hazards.

The drought in California is driving animals from their usual niches and into suburban and even city neighborhoods. Rats are drinking from the swimming pools in Beverly Hills.

The West Nile virus is in the news now, but the problem of mosquito-borne diseases has been quietly growing. Locally transmitted malaria outbreaks were recorded from Texas and Florida to New Jersey and New York, and as far north as Toronto in the 1990s, which was the hottest decade in 600 years. In September of 2002, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were found in Leesburg, Virginia, near the homes of two teenagers infected with the disease.

Malaria has also been found in southern Europe and parts of Asia and South Africa. Globally, the areas on mountain tops where it remains below freezing all year have shrunk; now mosquitoes are mountain climbing. Insect-borne diseases have reached the highlands of South and Central America, Asia and areas of Africa. There were cases of dengue fever in Mexico a mile from sea level.

The connection between global heating and the spread of these diseases has been made by scientists but hasn't yet made an impression on the press or public. But if global heating ever becomes a major emotional issue in the U.S., it will likely be because of disease epidemics. Chunks of Alaska could sink into the vanishing permafrost without bothering anybody in Manhattan (NY or Kansas) but an epidemic of Lyme Disease in the Hamptons or malaria in Los Angeles might break the ice.

But if the West Nile virus is the tip of the global heating epidemic iceberg, that iceberg might also be the first of a metaphorical Ice Age.
For if global heating continues to accelerate through the century, epidemics will be only one of the more visible indicators of crisis. Some scientists forecast the possibility of climate change so severe that the very survival of the human species-along with other mammals and perhaps all animals larger than rats-is in doubt.

Science fiction writers and moviemakers have speculated for years
on the possibility of rodents and insects conquering the human species.
So are these scenarios just fantasies that take advantage of the typical queasy reaction to bugs and other creepy-crawly things? Or are they uncomfortable previews of the future?

Issues of great public interest and importance that could not be openly raised have often been discussed first in works of art and in particular, in works that seem to be merely popular entertainments. Since the beginning of the industrial age, science fiction has made it possible for people to puzzle out their reactions to new technologies and apocalyptic possibilities of all kind.

There's a progression to these tales that begins with H.G. Wells 1905 story, "Empire of the Ants," which depicts the discovery of a new species of super-ants in the South American Amazon, possessing a poison lethal to humans and the apparent intelligence to plan and coordinate strategies of attack. They have conquered several villages, causing "the flight or slaughter of every human being in the new areas they invade." The narrator estimates they will reach Europe in 1960. "These are intelligent ants," one character cries. "Just think what that means!"

Like many of Wells' science fictions, this story illustrates a scientific idea he had already proposed in his essays for periodicals. Wells was contemptuous of the popular attempt around the turn of the twentieth century to interpret Darwinian evolution as meaning inevitable progress for humanity. Fresh from his university study under Darwin's friend and most renowned interpreter, T.H. Huxley, Wells asserted that not only was human progress less than inevitable, even the continuation of humanity at the top of the food chain was by no means certain.

"Even now, for all we can tell, the coming terror may be crouching for its spring and the fall of humanity be at hand," he wrote in "The Extinction of Man." "In the case of every other predominant animal the world has ever seen...the hour of its complete ascendancy has been the eve of its entire overthrow." Among the candidates Wells mentions for lowly animals that might yet evolve to overthrow humanity are ants.

"The Empire of the Ants" is a minor story in the Wells canon(though it still bears no resemblance to the 1977 camp movie of this title starring Joan Collins). It's impressive mostly for its descriptions of exotic landscapes that Wells had never seen--except for a brief visit to the European continent, he had spent his entire life to that point within roughly a fifty miles radius of London. Since it takes place almost entirely aboard a small gunboat on a river surrounded by jungle, it probably owes something to Wells friendship with Joseph Conrad.

In some ways it reads almost as a parody of Conrad. The characters are nearly comic, especially the captain. But on closer reading, the human foolishness and futility are part of the point. The ants are deadly serious, and know what they're doing. The humans are virtually helpless, caught up in games of rank and vanity, armed with technology that is useless against this enemy. All they can do is shoot a gun into the green void-something that also happens in Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness," and suggests an actual event that Conrad witnessed: a French warship shelling a stretch of African coastline with no actual target or purpose.

The ants represent Nature reasserting herself, as clearly suggested in the story's descriptive passages. "The forest was interminable, it had an air of being invincible, and Man seemed at best an infrequent precarious intruder," the young engineer observes. "Man at most held a footing upon resentful clearings, fought weeds, fought beasts and insects for the barest foothold, fell a prey to snake and beast, insect and fever, and was presently carried away."

For all we know, Wells wrote in an essay, Nature may be "in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fullness of time and sweep homo away into the darkness from which his universe arose." "The Empire of the Ants" may well be Wells' version of "Heart of Darkness."

Wells' scenario is based on nature's own actions over time, but in our time it's become clear that humanity could provide nature with a short cut by taking a more active role in its own self-destruction. That capability became obvious with the atomic bomb. So it was no coincidence that a virtual epidemic of movies about nature's revenge on humanity spread out from Hollywood in the 1950s, with a new and important difference from the evolutionary fable of "Empire of the Ants." Although it was ants again that started it.

The march of the monsters onto 1950s movie screens began elegantly with Howard Hawks 1951 science fiction thriller, "The Thing (From Another World)," about a marauding space vampire resembling Frankenstein that was accidentally thawed out of the arctic ice. Then "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, " a film based loosely on a Ray Bradbury short story, added the element of the atomic bomb: nuclear explosions free a dinosaur (a Rhedosaurus) from its natural cryogenic chamber in the arctic. A low budget Warner Brothers B-movie, it was a surprise hit of 1953. So Warner invested more action and Hollywood production values in its 1954 release, "Them!," which upped the atomic ante with a controversial and very scary element: mutation.

The status of public and official response to mutations caused by atomic bomb explosions in 1954 was roughly analogous to the climate crisis now. The science was somewhat less certain than the current case for global heating, but there was anecdotal evidence emerging from the latest H-bomb tests in the South Pacific. On one exposed atoll with a population of 406, there were 19 babies born with genetic defects, and 3 stillbirths, including one child so deformed as to be "not recognizable as human." And there was growing laboratory evidence of genetic deformations in animals deliberately exposed to nuclear radiation.

But the United States government and its officially endorsed scientists had a long record of minimizing or denying that atomic radiation was all that harmful. They dismissed reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima as Japanese propaganda. Official reports denied that radiation sickness was even painful; one highly ranked administrator told Congress that radiation poisoning was "a very pleasant way to die." When islanders, a boat of Japanese fishermen and some U.S. military personnel were contaminated by a radioactive particles from an unexpectedly strong H-bomb test, officials lied about known radiation poisoning, and denied reports of contaminated tuna from the fishing boat. The head of the U.S. atomic energy commission intimated that the fishermen were really a "Red spy outfit."

The American public heard these denials, but they also saw the photographs and read eyewitness reports by journalists. They heard scientists like Linus Pauling who said fallout was already causing deaths, opposed by scientists like Edward Teller who said that the very low levels of radiation weren't harmful at all-in fact, they stimulated growth.

Radioactive fallout would erupt as a public issue in the 1956 presidential campaign, but this science fiction movie brought the idea of mutations out in the open two years earlier, even if it was the short distance from silence and the private unconscious to the shared public unconscious of the popular movie.

"Them!" begins with a classic suspense set-up. First the scenes of inexplicable death and destruction in the desert Southwest, but no witnesses left alive except a traumatized little girl who can only cry, "Them!" Then the cast of characters assembles to investigate-the usual set of Brains (usually the Scientist Hero), assisted by Brawn (sometimes the Action Hero) and Elder Scientist, and the inevitable Elder Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.

For awhile we see only the ruins of what the monsters have destroyed. Then the terrified face of a victim as the monster approaches, and its shadow on the wall. Then a brief glimpse of the monster, before the whole monster suddenly appears, waving towering tentacles and making an insistent, eerie sound.

But this alien with the huge eyes is not from outer space. It's an unnaturally immense version of a familiar creature in nature. It's an ant. (Talk about your stimulated growth.) The horror of the insect's alien features enlarged to nightmarish proportions gave visual power to the vague notion that the atomic bomb was in some profound way a violation of the natural order.

Though the human characters became standard issue for the 1950s science fiction genre, in "Them!" they were well written and played. They had human faults and conflicts, and were baffled most of the time. But in contrast to Wells' crew, they used intelligence, compassion, technology and physical courage to triumph over the giant ants-though as this film explicitly said-perhaps only temporarily.

The giant ants of "Them!" had been created by radioactive effects of the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. After they defeated these monsters, the four main human characters stood in the desert and talked of the future. "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" asks the Action Hero. "I don't know," says the Beautiful Daughter. "Nobody knows," says the Elder Scientist. The Brains-and-Courage character sums it up: "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."

"Them!" was an innovative film and box office success in 1954-enough of both to attract Walt Disney to the theatre. Disney normally didn't go out to see other people's movie (he might have been scouting the creature work in advance of his release later in the year of "20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea".) His overall reaction isn't known, but he did take a liking to a young actor with a small part named Fess Parker, and cast him as the 1950s television icon, Davy Crockett.

In fact, "Them!" is oddly notable for having three future TV icons in its modest cast-Parker, James Arness as the Action Hero, who would rule prime time TV for a decade as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, and in an even smaller role than Parker's, Leonard Nimoy, the future Mr. Spock of Star Trek. Even the ostensible lead of the film, James Whitmore, would turn up in many TV dramas, and star in his own early 60s series, "The Law and Mr. Jones."

The success of "Them!" led most directly to a 1950s sub-genre known as the Bug-Eyed Monster movies (with a parallel glut of such stories in science fiction pulp magazines.) Soon screens would be crawling with ferocious giant scorpions, tarantulas, mantises and spiders. Together with other creatures and natural phenomena created or awakened by atomic weapons in movies of this era, these films added a new wrinkle to the Wells vision: nature in general, and other creatures specifically, wouldn't need millions or even hundreds of years to destroy humanity. They could do it overnight, thanks to the folly of technology humans used without understanding its effects.

Human hubris would be the species undoing: humanity was handing itself over to the ants. Creepy crawly creatures we overlook every day, just as our predominantly urban civilization doesn't see the life forms it dooms to extinction every day, will wreak nature's revenge.

After Wells' evolved ants, and the ants given gigantic advantage by the unintended effects of human action, we face a third possibility for which there is as yet no fiction. It's a real possibility, which may not be coming to your theatre soon, but to your life.

It's a combination of these two scenarios: the conquest of humanity by other creatures, including the ants, not because humans unintentionally altered the creatures, but because we have unintentionally altered the environment. It's humanity's latest way of assassinating itself.

By upping the temperature, we are creating a physical environment which is more suitable for these creatures, and less suitable for us. Wells stated the conditions all too precisely in one of those 1890s essays: "Imagine in our own time some far-reaching changes effected in the conditions of life on this planet, an increase in humidity, perhaps, or a change in the composition of the air effected speedily-say in a hundred years or so." In that period of time, Wells goes on, the smaller and faster breeding creatures will biologically adapt much quicker.

But of course some are pretty well adapted already to warmer weather, and that includes mosquitoes and the pathogens they carry that cause malaria, dengue fever, cholera, yellow fever and several kinds of encephalitis. Malaria right now kills between 1 and 2 million people a year, mostly children, but is limited to poor tropical areas. The uncertainty about the figure suggests how far below the Zeitgeist radar this disease and especially its victims has fallen.

But that invisibility could change-and may already be changing. Some climate models show that areas where 60% of the world's population lives could be endangered, instead of the 45% that's most susceptible now.

Warm seasons that get hotter in normally temperate areas are only half the problem-it's also the cooler seasons that don't get cold enough anymore. The whole circuit was in play when the West Nile virus hit New York City in 1999 where it killed 7, according to Paul R. Epstein in "Scientific American". A lot of mosquito larvae are normally killed by cold temperatures, but many survived the mild winter. The hot summer speeded up the maturation and activity of both the mosquitoes and the virus inside them. A similar pattern may be at work in Louisiana. New Orleans went five years in the 90s without a killing frost, which meant more mosquitoes.

A similar sequence may also be a factor in the spread of deer ticks into new areas, and their earlier appearance and greater numbers in their normal range, spreading not only some 16,000 cases of Lyme disease a year as well as other diseases.

So far government scientists and media reports focus on the usual culprits and language-the spread of contagions, eradication efforts, the swelling deer population, etc. All of these are factors, but sooner or later the public will notice the coincidence of climate change. It's worth noting that as rare as they've been in northern climes, no real vaccine exists for malaria and dengue fever, and drug treatments have often been compromised by resistance.

So what about the ants? There are some 20,000 different kinds, found almost everywhere. They've been around for some 100 million years. Many species thrive in tropical climates. There are several kinds of scavenger ants that are among the most heat tolerant insects yet identified. They live in the Sahara and Australian deserts, largely on the remains of insects and animals that die from heat exposure.

There is a recently discovered single super-colony of Argentine ants that begins underground in northern Italy and ends at the Atlantic in Spain-some 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) away. It contains billions of ants in millions of nests, but an ant at the Italy end will chemically recognize an ant at the Spanish end, and they will work together. These ants have eliminated 90% of other ant species in their range.

Some five years ago, super colonies of "crazy ants" from Africa invaded Australia's Christmas Island, which is famous for its millions of migrating land crabs. The ants spray poison that blinds the crabs, and the ants eat them. The ants have cut the crab population by nearly half, dispatched a few other species, and dominate a quarter of the island's rain forest.

Native and mostly non-native fire ants are rapidly expanding their range into nine southern states of the U.S, where they are creating all kinds of expensive havoc ($300 million worth of damage annually in Texas alone.) In some places they've wiped out entire species, directly and indirectly (by gobbling up the food supply.)

They've been responsible for mice, snakes and turtles disappearing from an area. They eat crops and their huge mounds disrupt irrigation systems. They've been known to damage machinery. They invade homes and cars. Their stings are painful, sometimes leaving permanent skin damage or leading to illness and occasionally death. They've caused car crashes by stinging drivers.

Nobody knows how to get rid of the fire ants without causing even more damage. Importing natural predators is being tried, but that's risky, too. The chemicals that eradicate fire ants also poison the air, water and other forms of life, including people.

That's also a problem in eradicating mosquitoes, the only effective method known to control the diseases they carry. The poisons that kill them also kill their natural predators, and they poison people.

Are the ants evolving in dangerous ways, as Wells suggested? We don't really know, because humans have been too busy watching "Survivor" to pay much attention. We are surprised to be finding life flourishing in places humans thought were too cold and too hot for anything to survive. We are also eradicating other species at an unprecedented rate, including many we know nothing about.

If global heating gets as bad as some scientists think it might, the human race on earth is doomed, along with most other familiar animal species. The ants and the mosquitoes might make it. They may wind up being the dominant life forms. But before they are, we may find ourselves battling for life against them.

We seem to have an instinctive fear of spiders and insects in general, but particularly the swarming social insects, like bees and ants. They have an order and thinking process we don't understand, and they are prodigious and relentless. Another 1950s monster movie, a little- known British classic called "Twenty Million Miles to Earth," manages to combine the "buried flying saucer" and "space monsters come back to life" motifs of "The Thing" with a particularly horrifying image: the revived space creatures-who had invaded the earth eons ago but had since been sealed away underground-- are like giant locusts. Seen in profile, on their hind legs and with antennae twitching, they are the spitting image of the devil.

We fear the ants no doubt due to the problems they've caused us in the past, and the damage they cause now. But maybe also for the trouble they can give us in the future, if this is indeed the eve of our entire overthrow.

Even if it isn't, the lesson for the present is a variation on Wells' warnings against human hubris. We act as if our conquest of nature is permanent, and everything we do is predestined to add to our success. But especially as our civilization becomes more and more dependent on a few technologies and a few fragile interconnections, we come closer to being thrown back to direct dependence on a natural world we have meanwhile been destroying. The rich environment that nurtured human development is fading. We may not be so well adapted to what we have in part created.

The answer isn't to demonize the ants, or to continue to view nature as implacably hostile, a deeply embedded cultural bias from Wells' time to our own. Neither is it to see ourselves as benevolent spirits protecting a harmless wilderness: Smoky the Bear guarding Bambi. Despite our blinders of concrete, we are a product and a part of nature-formed and nurtured by it, and subject to its forces. When we threaten our context, we threaten ourselves. We have to take care.