Climate activist Bill McKibben. (photo: 350.org)
e are a few weeks away from the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, the one where he announced (with Churchillian timbre) that "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." He named the geopolitical fact that would dominate the globe for the next 40 years, the single factor that would focus, and often warp and distort, everyone's worldview for most of the rest of the 20th century.
Sometime in the last 10 days, a mosquito net has descended across the Americas. It is unlikely to cause armed conflict between great powers, but unless we are very lucky, the new divisions it creates are likely to linger, truncating and deforming relationships, and changing the way that rising generations view the world in which they live.
And in the meantime, it's pure agony for women and families across Latin and South America. The Zika virus has been in circulation in Africa for some time, apparently, but in the last two years it made a decisive crossing into South America -- perhaps into Brazil, perhaps with the World Cup soccer tournament. In any event, in this previously unexposed population it is producing a particularly horrifying havoc.
Last year, 4,000 microcephalic babies were born in Brazil -- that is, babies with small, rounded heads. (They were called "pinheads" in the 19th century, when they were common sideshow exhibits. It's gross -- and we've since, thank God, learned to think more thoughtfully about children with birth defects -- but there's no denying the visceral pain the image still evokes.) This increase, from the normal baseline of a couple of hundred cases, obviously alarmed Brazilians -- there are at the moment 220,000 troops deployed across the country. Their job is to turn over flowerpots and empty tires of standing water.
That's because it's mosquitoes that spread zika. Aedes egypti, in particular, the same species that spreads other newly worrisome diseases, such as chikunyunga. In some measure, that rapid spread is paced by climate change. As the New York Times said in the first story about the disease, researchers are particularly worried that "climate change may be allowing viruses like Zika to thrive in new domains." The World Health Organization pointed out this morning that the hot, wet El Nino was part of the story -- and of course they've been tracking the worldwide spread of dengue, carried by the same mosquito, as that long-feared disease finds vast new swaths in which to thrive.
The concern is obvious, since global-warming creates new habitats for mosquitoes -- they love the warmer, wetter world we are systematically building. As Maria Diuk-Wasser of Yale's School of Public Health told Scientific American in 2013, speaking before the Zika scare, "The direct effects of temperature increase are an increase in immature mosquito development, virus development and mosquito-biting rates, which increase contact rates (biting) with humans."
In any event, the disease is spreading very rapidly, as one again would expect in an area with such tight air links. By last week, the Centers for Disease Control had listed 24 countries that American women thinking of becoming pregnant should avoid (a warning that came too late for some; a microcephalic baby was born in Hawaii a few weeks ago, to a mother who had traveled to Brazil early in her pregnancy). By this week, the major air carriers in the region had announced they would refund the tickets of any passengers who no longer wanted to travel into the Zika zone.
Inside that zone, of course, was where the real damage was being done. To their credit, health authorities seemed to be speaking up promptly, and not minimizing the crisis. In Brazil, Colombia, and Jamaica, health ministers urged residents not to become pregnant. In El Salvador, the authorities said last week that couples should postpone pregnancy until at least 2018. That's remarkable, and perhaps unprecedented, like something out of a particularly grim Margaret Atwood novel.
Imagine what it must be like to be pregnant right now in some Recife favela or Kingston slum, just waiting to see if your child is born damaged.
President Obama yesterday urged fast development of vaccines and treatments (there are none at the moment), which is good. And today the World Health Organization (burned by its slow response to Ebola) announced it was scrambling to put plans into action. But in the meantime, the fears are so visceral and the images so graphic that it's possible to imagine a future where easy contact begins to break down. (Zika has also been tentatively linked to a bizarre condition called Guillain-Barre, whose victims are paralyzed for weeks or longer.)
The social and ideological stresses of the 20th century divided the world into distinct camps; now, as we are forcing the planet's physical systems to change at the same breakneck pace, it seems possible that we'll see a replay of those divisions, this time along epidemiological lines, and as usual making life hardest for those who have done the least to cause our problems.
Zika provides a glimpse into a future we should do everything possible to avoid, a terrifying reminder why the fight for a stable physical planet is the fight of our time.
Bill McKibben is scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and the author of "The End of Nature, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities" and the "Durable Future and Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He is also the founder of 350.org, the global climate campaign that has been actively involved in the fight against natural gas fracking.