I’ve probably read more about the Ebola outbreak in the past five days than is healthy, but the social and political response has got me thinking a lot about quarantine. I’m reminded of a chapter in One Hundred Years of Solitude where everyone in the town catches a plague of insomnia and then amnesia, forgetting the words of their language (so they just make up new ones). How quickly, it seems, that the arrival of a distant disease will make people forget about everything else.
Also, I just re-read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism,” which I suggest reading in its entirety. Ebola is pretty scary, but wide-scale quarantine—which can not be instituted without omnipotent surveillance and control—might just be scarier. From the aforementioned work:
The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.
Thus the peripheral ramifications of Ebola, or of any disease, are just as (if not more) terrifying than the symptoms themselves—even though one of the symptoms in this case is death. The disease as concept, or, namely, the realization of our inability to contain it, let alone fully understand it, is as anathema to the average person as philosophical determinism: a complete lack of control over circumstances. This prospect is truly horrifying to most people. The result of combating this horror is that you either get a breakdown of civility (and I mean that literally, from the Latin civitas: life in the city) or its truest form: a society segmented, gridded, surveilled, and sterilized.
My fear is that before this Cartesian utopia/dystopia can be carried out, either through vigilantism or through martial law (which is really the same thing), the specter of Ebola—or of disease itself: the fear of contamination in general—might push people and/or governments to drastic ends, and people’s response to anything is usually worse than the thing itself. I think the hysteria will get much worse before it subsides, and will probably be the justification for (further) stratification, compartmentalization, and xenophobia—it not outright violence—here in the US. Just wait until a Mexican contracts the disease. Google “Alex Jones ebola” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
In the meantime, we’re running out of water, but for some reason that’s not as terrifying to people.
“But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is, therefore, the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must be accomplished every day and every hour merely in order to sustain human life.” – Karl Marx
In his opening keynote to the South By South West Eco Conference (SXSW Eco), titled “Climate Change and Vulnerability: Why a Southern Region Climate and Community Resilience Initiative is Needed”, Dr. Robert Bullard highlighted the need for a three-pronged approach: “urgency, hope, and optimism.”
A little more than an hour later, Professor Robert Jensen, long-time activist, journalist, and all-around free thinker (and personal friend of mine), was telling the audience at his talk, titled “Coping With the Cascading Crises of our World“, that “we are long past the point where urgency is needed.” With many ecological points of no return long passed—soil, biodiversity, water, climate, etc.—asking for urgency is a bit mendacious, not to mention asking for hope or optimism.
But all published nature writers will tell you (I assume): end on a positive note! And yet, it should be bluntly apparent (sometimes literally, as many a protester is hit with many an object these days) that our species has brought the ecological order to—and past—various and ever-numerous tipping points. As Bob Jensen prefaced his remarks: “I’m here to state what is painfully obvious.”
Look around: the erosion and degradation of top soil, the raking, poisoning, and boiling of the oceans, the extremely abrupt loss of biodiversity, the list could go on… and on. And then ask yourself: Can we hope ourselves out of this problem? Can we feel optimistic that people—let alone corporations—will change in the face of this problem? Will our political and economic institutions allow the necessary responses to crises that were urgent fifty years ago? These are among the questions that Jensen asked his audience, to a quiet stare, followed by a sense, at least from where I was sitting, of deep resignation.
But fear not—there’s no reason to be depressed. Time is all we have; better enjoy it! And try to help as many humans and non-humans along the way as you can. The fox, the raven, the earthworm, the moss—they don’t care about charts and links and talks at conferences. They need your help right now, and I presume, if you’re anything like me, you also need theirs.
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.”
– Wendell Berry
According to this BBC article, world wildlife populations have been halved in the last 40 or so years:
The report suggests populations have halved in 40 years, as new methodology gives more alarming results than in a report two years ago.
The report says populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by an average of 52%.
Populations of freshwater species have suffered an even worse fall of 76%.
The rest of the article is comprised of different scientists arguing over the significance of the statistical data. Did we kill 30% of all species, or only 29%?
Meanwhile, the world burns.
According to the article’s numbers, there are an estimated 3,000 tigers, total, living on earth at present. I’m reminded of Derrick Jensen’s line about how people care way more about the LSU Tigers than they do about actual tigers. They also care more about Jaguars than about jaguars, and so on.
But judging by the outcry and global revolution that was sparked by the news of the extinction of the Western Black Rhino… okay you get my point. Nothing’s going to change—at least, not willingly.