Episode 06: Of Microbes and Meat

A new episode of A Shot In The Arm podcast is out!

David Evans and I chew the cud about the state of antibiotic resistance, why we are at the end of the golden age of antibiotics, and what is going to happen if we do not get our act together now.

Sounds familiar? It should. There is growing awareness that climate change, global infectious disease, education, economic development and human rights are essentially a “singularity” (to borrow Ray Kurtzweil). That is to say, we face one issue, albeit with many confusing and contradictory aspects.

What is that singularity? I don’t think artificial intelligence covers it fully. Rather, it is about how our survival depends on how we empower individual innovation, while ensuring collective responsibility (to ourselves and our neighbors, animal, mineral and vegetable). Climate change and global infectious disease are the end result of over-population and the destruction of habitats to make room for agriculture to feed that population. We come into contact with old and new enemies, bacteria, viruses and heavens knows what. Only to find we are less prepared than ever to accommodate them.

There is a recently published new biography of the French Philosopher Denis Diderot by Andrew Curran. I strongly recommend it, especially for summer beach reading. Seriously. Admittedly, Diderot is not for the faint-hearted, and he had some obscure and hard-to-understand views on pretty much everything. But Andrew Curran engages you in a most satisfying way. And as it relates to a fundamental singularity, Diderot appears to have thought, at times, that far from being the pinnacle of evolution, humanity’s self-awareness may be a dead-end. it offers no promise, and is self-destructive. The planet will move on without us. There have been plenty of extinctions on this planet. What is one more, really? So, it really does not matter what we do or think. I did my very best to ignore Diderot at university, but at times like these, some of his thinking has a strong, if gloomy appeal.

Humanity’s abuse of anti-bacterials is a prime example of our species’ hubris. We, in the North, now blame the global South for the very problems we created - out of control use of antibiotics to treat diseases and grow food. Read this recent New York Times article, which captures exactly the sensationalist, if tone-deaf sentiment.

In the Post Second World War era, as sure as sliced bread, we have assumed that the science boffins are beavering away at solutions that are just around the corner. However, as David Evans points out, a recent review of current anti-bacterial research by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that research, such as it is, is really not encouraging.

The perilous state of antibiotic research still surprises many people. We hold a simplistic and dismissive view of science and the sheer bloody perseverance that is demanded of our scientists. What do I mean by this? As an example, at the start of this episode, you can hear one of my occasional rants, this time about the otherwise gripping HBO miniseries Chernobyl. I was outraged that a generation of brave Soviet nuclear scientists (who, at great risk to themselves, spoke out about the disaster and how it might be addressed) was “represented” by one fictional character played by the English actor, Emily Watson. This may have made the facts bend more easily into a sloppy and predictable narrative. But it simply is not true. The producers put a lot of effort into the sets, though. And thus learn yet again, that it is easier to spend more attention on scenery than story.

Yet. Diderot, Chernobyl and antibiotic resistance notwithstanding, I cannot but be optimistic about our future. There is a blinking of a new collective realization that can change the way we will live, and it is possible to transform ourselves. We miss the point if we describe this moment through a stale 20th century lens of capitalism versus socialism. If HBO’s Chernobyl tells us anything, it is that stupidity is not a monopoly of today’s nationalist right. Damning the private sector just because it is private strikes me as clueless as complaining about the incompetence of the public sector.

Rather, the key is for a vibrant civil society to force the private and public sectors to work together. Occasionally, there will be flashes of brilliance, but more often it will be a long, hard slog. The framework that has really outlived its usefulness is the nation state. Viruses, bacteria and radiation know no national boundaries. The real lesson from the golden age of antibiotics is that it is pointless to regulate their use in our country, if they are not regulated next door. We have to find better ways of organizing ourselves. A more positive expression of this sentiment is that being a citizen of everywhere, is greater than being being a citizen of somewhere (yes, that’s a reference to that most unfortunate of politicians, Theresa May).

What do we do? I have always giggled at the late Aldous Huxley saying “It's a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other”. As always (that is, after he moved to California) Huxley is absolutely right.

Our story-tellers are as important to society as our scientists. It is not just a question of having the facts, but how they are woven into how we understand the world. Many of our story tellers are still employing narratives that do not fit the facts, whether be they be politicians, commentators, journalists, authors or show-runners for streamed mini-series spectacles. As many people would expect me to say, Margaret Atwood represents the kind of story-teller we need for the 21st century. She has an inquisitive and mischevious mind, that strikes me as entirely appropriate for our age (by the way, here is a total shameless plug for her sequel to The Handsmaid’s Tale is which is being released this summer. The novel has also been adapted by the streaming service Hulu and enters its third season in June). I would also like to give a shout out to my Oakland neighbor Oakland Buzz On The Street, which interviews A Shot In The Arm Regular, Gloria Lockett.

Scientists and story-tellers apart, what this means for the rest of us, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, is the need for a democracy of responsibility: We all have to act, and cannot sit back and expect our authorities (public or private) to take care of things. I do not make that assertion lightly - it will require sacrifice in some way or another from all of us.

I promised in the first episode of A Shot In The Arm that we would stay abreast of developments in Venezuela, a topic that is sadly very relevant to this week’s show. Mary Ann Torres who heads ICASO (and for total transparency, I am its Board chair) has provided this harrowing update on impact the country’s collapse is having on people living with HIV.

Also sobering is the coordinated culmination in many southern states of the USA of hard-right and vicious anti-abortion laws. These are attacks on reproductive health justice. They are rooted in the false narrative of “protecting life” from the emergence of a so-called “fetal heart beat” at around six weeks of pregnancy - a claim that is simply not true.

All of us must “do our bit,” as seems fit and proper for each of us, to support of girls and women. There are a range of ways we can do so, and I list three of them below.

Stay strong everyone!

You may find these links useful:

www.who.int

www.cdc.gov

https://www.google.com/amp/www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2019/03/tracking-the-global-pipeline-of-antibiotics-in-development%3Famp%3D1

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/

https://yellowhammerfund.org/
https://www.arc-southeast.org/

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