1. White-Nose Syndrome
White-Nose Syndrome affects at least one fifth of the bat species in North America, making it one of the most severe wildlife diseases on record. In the dark and damp places where bats hibernate, a white fungus grows on their face and wings, disrupting their hibernation cycles and causing them to come out of hibernation too early. As a result, they will often burn off their winter fat reserves and die. According to the USGS, it has killed off 6 million bats in the last decade, and since bats are crucial “keystone species” for many ecosystems—important for plant pollination and forest regeneration, and for helping farmers with insect control—their disappearance from North American ecosystems would be cataclysmic.
The first case of white-nose was discovered in central New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Soon, scientists began finding the fungal disease in the surrounding states, with accompanying “mass mortality events,” i.e. mass-grave crime scenes with no immediate suspects. The scientists could only watch in horror as states throughout the eastern United States fell to the disease one by one: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and outward it kept spreading.
In 2011 the suspect, a fungus with the ominous name of p. destructans, was found to originate in Europe, where it cohabitates and very likely coevolved with European bats, and as a result doesn’t cause mass die-offs. Early on it was speculated that p. destructans produced a toxin that induces organ failure in the bats, but in 2014, scientists identified a “cascade of physiologic disturbance” caused by the fungus: disruption of “deep torpor” or hibernation, depletion of energy reserves, and starvation and dehydration. The fungus arbitrarily hitches a ride on bats and wears them down, which could indicate that p. destructans doesn’t want to be here any more than the bats want it to be. But if that’s the case, how did it get to North American soil in the first place, and how did it become a killer?
We might never know the answer, but let’s assume it’s capitalism, or the kind that goes by the name “globalism.” Long experience tells us that it’s probably like the fungal chestnut blight: a relatively benign parasite for Asian chestnut trees, the cryphonectria parasitica fungus killed billions of North American Chestnut trees in the first few decades of the 20th century, leaving merely thousands behind (perhaps just hundreds). Like the Varroa bee mite, Dutch Elm disease, white pine blister rust, and many others, White-Nose Syndrome is the sort of serial killer that’s relatively easy to profile: victims of global trade, the latest in a very long line of murderous first contacts.
Scientists are experimenting with inoculations that could induce a form of immunity, these efforts are still in their preliminary stages.
II. Rabies or, “hydrophobia”
I first encountered white-nose syndrome in West Virginia in the summer of 2013. I’d been hired by an environmental consulting firm to conduct habitat surveys on land slated to be mined for coal, drilled for oil and gas, or cleared for wind turbines. Our job was to find endangered species like the Indiana bat, tag them with a transponder, and track their movements. If they nested in the areas permitted for destruction, we might be able to buy a little time for that habitat, but this was only fleeting: when winter came, and the bats went into their caves for hibernation, the company would clear-cut the now-empty roost trees.
While biologists were deeply unnerved by white-nose syndrome, it wasn’t at the top of my list of concerns. That spot was reserved for rabies, a disease that has been with mammals for millions of years. You see, I’d bluffed my way into the job—with no real background in biology—and had never worked with bats before. But I’d heard about rabies; I knew that people were afraid of bats because of rabies, and that you could die from it. And then I met Tom Sexton, the biggest hypochondriac I’ve ever known, who had also bluffed his way into the job (which should tell you a lot about how diligent these fossil fuel companies are when it comes to hiring).
Tom and I were just the labor grunts, of course; every night, we’d hike out to a spot in the woods, set up a massive net in a dark forest corridor, and wait for bats to fly into it. We spent a lot of time picking moths and beetles out of the nets, while the actual biologists handled the bats. Every now and then I handled some bats, but I’d never been bitten, and neither had Tom. I thought this would prevent me from getting rabies. But one day Tom observed that rabies only needed to be transferred by saliva – no need for a bite that breaks the skin. Have you ever gotten any bat saliva on you? He asked. Better think real hard before you answer that, buddy.
And then he proceeded to tell me about rabies. I mean really tell me about it. About how, once the symptoms begin, you’re fucked: there is no turning back, no shot you can get to halt the process. The virus hikes up your nervous system like a rock climber until it reaches your salivary glands, where it sets up shop and multiplies in order to be transmitted again.
The virus’s relocation to your salivary glands produces perhaps the most famous symptom of rabies, hydrophobia. (“Hydrophobia” is in fact the old medical term for rabies.) You develop an intense fear of water, because the virus really doesn’t want you to wash any liquids through its new home, i.e. your salivary glands. The virus is going to do its thing anyway, of course; it’s certain death once it’s reached the nervous system. But the dysphagic convulsions in the throat add to its cruelty.
There are other symptoms you really don’t want—such as involuntarily ejaculating up to thirty times a day—but the hydrophobia thing stuck with me. There are videos on YouTube documenting this phenomenon, though viewer discretion is advised: the patient can barely bring the water to his/her mouth. There is also literature showing that hydrophobia goes beyond mere water consumption: Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, famously refused to go near a watery swamp after being infected with rabies. As the symptoms worsened, even the water in his shaving bowl scared him.
Does the brain contain some innate awareness of a concept like water? Or is “water” a learned concept, facilitated through the medium of the mind’s internal speech system? How does the brain recognize water in any form, from the water in a glass, to a shaving bowl, to a swamp? And how does it then extend that recognition into a fully-embodied phobia, complete with a visceral rejection of the object? Perhaps I’m gravely overthinking something that has a simple explanation, but if the brain can simultaneously register the object and register the virus’s aversion to the object, what is going on at the neurological level?
I’ve put this question to multiple cognitive scientists, and in their responses to my random emails out of the blue, they were mostly stumped: Noam Chomsky wasn’t aware of any studies on the topic and Stephen Pinker could only point me to a study by racist scientist Richard Herrnstein showing that laboratory pigeons could identify water in diverse forms in color slides. (Like all research from Dr. Herrnstein, these findings should be viewed skeptically; the pigeons might have learned to recognize water, rather than possess an innate concept.) The philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith was more helpful: he speculated that hydrophobia could be “an incidental effect of the disease [but] part of the virus’ strategy (as sneezing is in the case of flu, etc).”
Could the rabies virus know things about our minds and bodies that we do not? This would, after all, be the best strategy for destruction: know your host inside and out; know which parts of your host can threaten and exterminate you; and know how to transmit destruction before the contaminated host dies.
III. Mountaintop Removal
The white-nose fungus, P. destructans, is in the geomyces genus, a fascinating set of species: they prefer colder environments, and are incredibly adept at biocorrosion. They are able to degrade nails, hooves, hair, and skin, and have even been found to deteriorate certain forms of sand and glass. But despite its name, P. destructans doesn’t seem malevolent. How could a fungus be malevolent? Even the kinds that can kill us, like black mold, or that take over ant bodies and turn them into servile slaves, don’t exhibit “behaviors” that can necessarily be classified as “evil.” A parasitical fungus simply spreads; it finds a place to grow and so it grows. A virus is similarly cold and calculating: it infects a host, injects a protein packet into its host’s cells, and identifies the pathways of transmission to its next host.
Infectious diseases, parasitical fungi, viruses… they’re all a bit like capitalism: amoral, soulless, and cold. They spread to where they can extract surplus value; they reproduce and ravage and once they’ve exhausted the local resources, they move on. Perhaps the best visual example in the case of capitalism is mountaintop removal coal mining, which spreads from mountain to mountain in an almost eternal quest for more minerals.
But the analogy between capitalism and viruses is too easy, a well-intentioned but ultimately incorrect piece of propaganda that removes human agency from capitalism. It likely comes from Marx’s famous analogy about capital being like a vampire. “Capital,” Marx wrote, “is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Here we have something that sounds very much like a virus: it’s introduced to a host, it extracts that host’s surplus value and, through its extraction, it continues to live, leaving a pile of dead bodies in its wake.
Capitalism, however, isn’t a virus or a parasite. It’s not as sophisticated; it actually doesn’t understand the ins and outs of the earth, at least not in the ways a virus must with human bodies. It can’t experiment and evolve alongside its host in the way a virus can, carefully learning its host’s innerworkings and mechanisms, because it kills the host too quickly. The best example of this is climate change itself; we’d already pumped the atmosphere full of carbon before we fully understood what this meant. But you can extend the metaphor to any modern environmental catastrophe: flooding caused by strip mining, Teflon chemicals in our drinking water supplies, or wildfires that consume entire suburbs. Capitalism is interesting because it will wind up killing the capitalists along with the proletariat, and it’s unlikely that anything short of literally getting off the planet will prevent this from happening.
Its relationship to the individual is also contradictory and self-destructive. It can’t do something as clever as override the collective need for resources like water; it can convince you, with chemicals and elaborate propaganda, to get addicted to sugary drinks, but at the end of the day it needs consumers and laborers and tenants to exist as classes. The exploitation or destruction of the individual means nothing to capitalism, because this isn’t necessarily profitable; its only concern is the exploitation of an entire class.
Viruses don’t spread this way, and must be more surreptitious, more careful to not sew the seeds of its own destruction; a virus needs a host to spread itself to another host, and nothing more. What it does in the individual host is negligible as long as it spreads to the next, and that could mean keeping it alive well beyond its due date, or shutting it down slowly while it has time to extract as much surplus as possible. The methods vary from virus to virus, but these are effective methods. After all, rabies has been with mammals for millions of years, and isn’t going away any time soon.
What does this say about humans who, after all, invented and maintain capitalism? In the summer of 2013, I frequently asked myself some version of this question: Capitalism is obviously bad for the environment, but hasn’t the impulse to destroy always existed in all humans, both pre- and post-capitalism? It’s impossible to look at the flattened moonscape of a strip mine and not to feel a cosmic indignity about the role we play in the world, and to draw the logical conclusion that humans are a slowly spreading cancer. After all, look at what happened during the recent government shutdown, when a couple of vandals broke into Joshua Tree National Park and started toppling the park’s beautifully rare trees. Look at all the litter in the creeks and in the oceans; look at the kid who needs to destroy an ant bed or a hornet’s nest; look at the hunter who kills indiscriminately and wastefully.
But again, this view is too easy. Humans, both at the scale of the individual and the collective, have always shaped their environments, but not in the same ways. Whether we shape our worlds through complex agricultural systems or trash islands is the result of political economy, which means that in this country it comes from industrial capitalism. Mountaintop removal, and ocean litter, and crop eradication are not legacies of humanity; they are the legacies of humans living under capitalism.
As the world and its ecosystems burn, the things that survive on destruction will thrive. The fungi and the viruses will outlast capitalism, because they are more sophisticated than capitalism. They may be the only things to survive it. If we also want to survive it, we should learn from them: destruction can present amazing opportunities and pathways for spreading not just cells, but ideas. The capitalists may have a tendency to kill their hosts too soon, but this does not have to be the case for the workers, the tenants, and the people at the margins. We’ve coevolved with capitalism for a long time now. We are starting to learn how to beat it.