The Designer Plague

If humanity is a cancer, what is the cure?


In January 1993 I went on a cross-country hike in Orange County, California, to protest a highway soon to go in. Puffing up a hill, I struck up a conversation with a member of the ecowarrior group Earth First!, who wore the signature red shirt with a clenched fist. We mounted a ridge and saw the gray sweep of concrete that lapped against the hills below.

"Looks like a sea of shit," the Earth Firster said. "Or a disease."

That same month the National Academy of Sciences and Britain's Royal Society jointly warned of the dangerous links between population and environmental damage. Following this up, the Union of Concerned Scientists mustered 1,500 experts to sign a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" and published it in leading newspapers. Heavy hitters, these, including the predictable (Linus Pauling, Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan), the inexpert but sanctified (Desmond Tutu), but also the heads of many scientific societies, Nobel laureates, and authorities in many fields. One such laureate, Henry Kendall of MIT, is leading the New Cassandras in a campaign to rouse the intelligentsia.

He makes his case thus: World population grows by 900,000 yearly and will double within half a century, maybe less. Meanwhile, the Green Revolution is apparently over; world crop production per person has declined. About 10 percent of the earth's agricultural land area has been damaged by humans. Half of all nations now have water shortages.

But such policy-wonk numbers, the ecologists remind us, are too human-centered. Our swelling numbers have their greatest impact on defenseless species in rain forests, savannahs, and coral reefs. Biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard warns that we could lose 30 percent of all species within half a century, and that might be only the beginning.

Humans exert selective pressures on the biological world. North Atlantic waters show a pattern of overfishing, and ever-shrewd nature has filled these niches with such "trash fish" as skates and spiny dogfish that we cannot eat and thus do not take out. Monoculture farming worldwide gains efficiency by growing the same staple—wheat, rice, corn, trees—over a large area, but this is inherently more fragile. Diseases and predators prey easily, and already erosion is a serious threat in many such areas.

Still, hand-wringing is not new, and skepticism about it is well earned. Paul Ehrlich's alarmist The Population Bomb has yet to explode, 25 years after publication. And there are counter-trends. The "developing world"—to use the latest evasive tag attempting to cover societies as diverse as Singapore and Somalia—is the great engine of population growth, but its pattern is not an exponential runaway.

It may, in fact, follow that of the industrial world, whose net growth curve broadly peaked around 1900 at a rate of 1 percent a year and is now a fourth of that. The poor countries may have entered just such a transition era. Some nations began peaking in the 1970s, and others are joining them. Still, the plateau average rate is 2.5 percent a year, so they have a long way to fall.

Environmentalists and professors alike fear their growth rates won't decline, at least not soon enough. This is where the Earth Firsters merge with the academics—in a profoundly pessimistic view of our collective, shared from the hushed halls of Harvard to the jerky hip-hop images of MTV.

Robert Malthus, the original population prophet, thought that civilization would hit the wall in the late 19th century. Despite failures, such predictions still work as propaganda. The wealthiest man in America, Warren Buffett, devotes considerable charitable giving to population control, as do several other members of the Forbes 400 wealthiest list. They are alarmed.

I suspect there is more here than a Malthusian malaise. While there are ever more mouths, there is also possible global damage unimagined by Malthus, a far more muscular feedback effect. These could tilt the entire biosphere against many species, including us.

A biologist recently remarked to me, "We've just run out of new niches. So the whole system will do a little feedback stabilizing." The vast, numbing menu of looming potential disasters—lessening fish stocks, water, topsoil; dwindling rain forests; growing ozone holes; dying species; global warming; deepening poverty; spreading pollution—makes the New Cassandras different.

They bring a message already deeply enshrined in the hard-core environmentalist movement, one the media have preached for decades. The issue is not the dry debate but the sea change in moral attitudes that underlies the talk, whether it is over immigration or owls vs. jobs.

To see the future, look to the fringes. The environmentalists are a powerful lobby, but they also have a wing that will, if you get in their way, spike your tree, slip sand into your backhoe's gas tank, or sink your tuna boat. This wing includes the Earth Firsters, but there are hundreds of others in lesser camps such as the Animal Liberation Front, the Hunt Saboteurs who disrupt big-game sport, Albion Nation, and assorted Deep Ecologists.

These are not policy pundits with whom libertarians can reach gentlemanly agreement about, say, junking federal timber subsidies. Their views occasionally surface anonymously, as when "Miss Ann Thropy" welcomed AIDS in Earth First! Journal as "a necessary solution." Sometimes they are less discreet, as when David Graber, a National Park Service research biologist, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet….We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along."

The hardliners practice varying degrees of "ecotage," which estimates place at about $25 million a year in the United States. I have met eco-warriors who are completely unaffiliated, though, some quite well educated and no less determined.

Initially their rules—as laid down by crusty Edward Abbey in the novel that inspired Earth First!, The Monkey Wrench Gang—were two. First, honor all life and do not hurt anyone. But Earth Firsters have strayed far from this rule, preparing traps for desert bikers and loggers that could have killed—but didn't because of the vigilance of their opponents.

Neither have they met their second rule: Don't get caught. The Arizona Five, who tried to cut an electrical tower, got nabbed by an FBI undercover agent. They didn't take a civil-disobedience stance, though; they tried to evade punishment on grounds of entrapment.

Still, many are willing to break the law and pay the price. Do the crime, do the time—a principled stance, but how far can it go? Are there crimes we cannot accept?

Back on that Orange County ridge line, gazing out over miles of dusky, besmogged concrete, the Earth Firster said something that genuinely frightened me. Not because it was a specific threat, but because it connected with my own academic world.

"Y'know, we're a cancer. And somebody's going to find a cure."

Already we are numbed by TV images of diebacks—the sudden, catastrophic collapse of whole life support structures on a regional level; the Four Horsemen writ large. I believe, though, that two social forces will bring even more dire events in the next century.

Consider: Our globe has a technological North with many accomplished bioengineers. Given our desire to extend our own lifespans, much research will go into an intricate fathoming of the human immune system, to fixing our cardiovascular plumbing, to forestall aging, and the like. That is the first important and plausible point.

On the other hand, the North will increasingly be appalled with the South's runaway growth. Many poor nations will double in numbers within 30 years.

Think of watching it on high-definition TV. Megacities will sprawl, teeming with seedy, corrupt masses. Sao Paulo at 34 million, second only to pristine Tokyo. Lagos, Nigeria, which nobody ever considers, may top 17 million, despite the multitudes lost to AIDS. We will watch via satellite kindergarten-age children digging through cow dung, looking for corn kernels the cows hadn't digested. Colorful chaos laced with dusky despair. Gangs of urchin thieves who don't know their own last names. Gutters as sewers. Families living in cardboard boxes. Babies found discarded in trash heaps.

The more the North thinks of humanity as a malignancy, the more we will unconsciously long for disasters. This is the second, all-too-plausible point.

Somewhere, sometime, someone may see in these two points a massive, historically unique problem and a quite simple solution: the Designer Plague.

An airborne form of, say, a super-influenza. The Flu from Hell, carried on a cough, with a several-week incubation period, so the plague path will be hard to follow. Maybe fine-tuned, too, carrying a specific trait that confines it to tropical climes, like malaria.

We in the comfy North forget that for the bulk of humanity diseases are kept at bay by a thin modernity in medicine, well water, and clean food. Yet across this globe a swift viral traffic flows. Influenza A, which brings teary, aching fever to 100 million of us yearly, is an old enemy, endlessly vigorous. It would make a handy weapon.

Viruses are ancient oddities. We have now mapped the RNA core of Influenza A and its surface proteins—tiny spikes that prod the human immune system into forming cloaking antibodies. This virus can mutate, rearranging the molecular code that shapes the spike-tip proteins. Then the new virus can dodge around our bodies' immune response, feasting on us until our bloodstreams conjure up a fresh antibody defense.

There is a curiosity in modern immunology, though. Antibody records of elderly patients' blood show that since 1890 all influenza epidemics have been wrought by only a few of the possible subtypes of the virus particles. Minor changes have kept the damage minimal.

Nobody knows why this is so. Influenza resides in our domesticated friends—turkeys, pigs, fish, chickens. We have tracked influenzas that breed in both birds and pigs, and new strains that attack humans have come from both; the Ford administration's alarm over Swine Flu was not hysterical.

Influenza spreads by air not through Boeing but through ducks and sea gulls. Only the pandemic of 1918-19, misnamed "Spanish" though it came from southern China, was powerful, killing as many of us as any single war has ever killed.

Influenza's potency derives from its primitive nature. Its viral RNA lacks the proofreading and editing skills that longer, more stable genomes such as ours have developed. So it is easily manipulated, and luckily the changes have been mild of late. Somehow, in the breeding ponds of Asia where farmers tend their paddy rice, only minor variants have appeared.

But in the laboratory, drastic tailoring is easier than ever before—and will get easier still. Big shifts in the influenza pattern, a new mix of genes, could bring greater infectivity and startlingly high virulence. Already, one carrier on an airplane or (in army experiments) one sick person just walking through a tent can infect many.

The big advances could lie in virulence. There are newly "emergent" viruses like Ebola that can kill up to two out of every three victims, suggesting that influenza could be brought up to this level as well.

A biologist at the University of California, Irvine, remarks, "I doubt that a single person could come up with the required virus. Certainly it could be done either with a large research team, as in defense labs, or by many individuals trying independently, and one getting lucky." How many? "A few dozen."

A mass plague does not necessarily demand high tech, either. Making a custom flu strain is very difficult now (unless tinkering turns one up by accident), because we do not know yet what makes strains virulent.

Instead, our old enemy smallpox could fill in. Since it was eradicated in the mid-1970s, few people have been vaccinated. By now most of the world is susceptible again. Smallpox is kept locked away at two heavily guarded sites in the world, while the medical community debates whether those two samples should be destroyed. (One counter-argument holds that, after all, smallpox is a species, and we should conserve species. I am not making this up.)

But smallpox is imprisoned only in one sense. Its genome is published in the open literature, so in another sense it's everywhere. Like all life, smallpox is at root information. A biological virus in this sense is exactly like a computer virus. All smallpox needs to make its way out of virtual reality is for a savvy scientist to translate.

I asked a friend, a UCLA biologist, to imagine how he would do this. With barely a moment's hesitation he rattled off, "Well, first you turn on a standard gene synthesizer. You use the published genome sequences to run some fragments of its DNA genome out. Keep it in manageable fragments, so you can then splice them. You put the naked genome into a cell which has been infected by a related pox virus, see? That supplies the needed viral enzymes. After that you get complete viruses, which you can amplify in cell culture. Dead easy. Then you're off—just spread it around. Hozzat for scary?"

I'm old enough to have been vaccinated, but my friend wasn't. The zesty way he tossed off a recipe made me blink. With modified proteins, airborne particles can turn 10 or even 100 times more deadly. And in the next few decades, myriad biotech workers will know how to alter viral information.

How many will belong to the Animal Liberation Front? It won't take many. A handful of carriers would suffice to spread such a designer plague. "You should hear the eco-warriors talk when there's no microphone around," an industrial molecular biologist remarked to me. "The only thing restraining them is the technical barriers."

Think of their rationalizations. Humanity as cancer. The Deep Ecology credo: All life is equally sacred.

Look at the big picture. Why not save millions of species a year by trimming the numbers of a mere single species?

And consider simple human misery. The aftermath of the Black Plague was a burst of prosperity, as the living inherited the wealth of the dead. Suddenly there were more croplands per person, more homes and horses and even hats. Enough, an Earth Firster gone wrong might argue, to get the battered South back on its economic feet. A blessing, really.

The essential point here is that theirs would be a moral argument proceeding from a wildly different premise: All life is equal.

Would anyone be mad enough to kill billions, hoping to stave off the ecological and cultural collapse of nations, of continents, of whole societies? It seems despicable, mad—and quite plausible, to me. Speculations along these lines have already been voiced by molecular biologists. A specialist in tropical diseases said to me, "I think it's a terrifying possibility. I've met enough otherwise intelligent people who believe a mouse and a deer and a human baby are of equal moral stature. Why not kill one that's out of population balance, to save another?"

Such dark possibilities come with any major advance in human capabilities. Only by anticipating them, as H. G. Wells foresaw atomic war, can we do the thinking and imagining that might prevent them.

Containing such threats only superficially resembles the nuclear proliferation problem. The automatic response is more state policing. But plutonium is scarce, so the plutonium pipeline is easily policed. The flu is everywhere, and so are genetic laboratories. There will never be enough cops.

Outside regulation will be nearly helpless. The very power of medical biotechnology lies in its ease of self-reproduction. A small conspiracy could develop Influenza A into a new, virulent form, test it on animal populations, and then spread it with already immunized carriers.

For immunization would go hand in hand with the very bioengineering that made SuperFlu. If one knows the map, one can chart a path through the obstacles. It is technically simple to develop a vaccine alongside the SuperFlu, and even design it so that the carriers could be safe from the effects.

Further shrewd games suggest themselves. With a vaccine in hand, the North could speedily immunize its population. Still, medical resources would be strained even in the North, the public outcry deafening. Inoculating in the South would be far more difficult, from slow transport, inevitable corruption, and the sheer numbers of the afflicted.

So even if the plotters were caught early on, the North would face a vexing moral dilemma. Exert themselves to save many in the South, or be sure all their own populations were safe first?

And other, quieter voices would say, wait a minute. Sure, the fanatics were wrong, evil—but if this disease runs its course, it will solve a lot of problems…

Standard bureaucratic regulation cannot contain this potential and quite original evil. The probable sources are small and diffused.

What could stop the SuperFlu? At a minimum, we should deplore the superheated rhetoric of humanity-as-cancer. Behind such headline-grabbing oversimplifications lurk some obnoxious assumptions and poor reasoning.

Far more effectively, we can reaffirm basic humanist values. Not all life is equivalent. While other species of course have an essential place, we cannot evade the fact that we are now the stewards of their world.

There is a further constellation of arguments that might reach the ecowarriors, given time. Experience shows that populations stabilize when technology, women's education, and childhood life expectancy rise above a critical level. But on the way to this point lies a danger zone: Technology improves life expectancy and fuels a population boom, which then exacts a terrible toll from the environment.

To get the Third World through the danger zone demands that they not follow our path to industrialization. Going through the "gray" technology of the 19th century would indeed yield mass pollution and gobble up resources. But the technologies of today and tomorrow are less damaging, less material-intensive. They are built on silicon and glass, not coal and iron. What the developing world needs is not giant dams but cheap solar-power collectors. Not steel works but composite-material assembly sheds, weaving renewable organic resources into hard, light products. They need our future, not our past.

Lewis Thomas points out that it's this way in medicine. Low-tech medicine is cheap—people get polio (say) or Salmonella and die. That's it; at least you contain costs. Medium tech is nasty and expensive—iron lungs and keeping people alive when there is no good treatment for a disease. Really high-tech medicine, vaccine and antibiotics, is relatively cheap again, and everyone lives. The same thing happens with technology in developing countries—it has to be all or nothing. In between is the killer.

For the moment the ecotage bands are mere cranks, oddities, wild-eyed nobodies on their rickety soapboxes. But their numbers rise. Their actions gather allies. Their anger soars. We must defuse that anger with actions of our own.

The zealot who could design a SuperFlu might well come from citadels of high moral purpose, too. Many Deep Ecologists spring from our universities. Their moral fervor runs parallel with high education and not a little dedication. After all, the most notorious mass murderer of our century came from the culture of Mozart and Goethe, favored animal rights, and was a fastidious vegetarian.

Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Timescape.