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Commodification of the Biosphere and Emergent Infection

The apparent surge in infectious diseases that have been documented over the past three
decades has been causally linked to rampant eco-destruction and industrialization by a
broad range of literature, both scientific and emotive. The commodification of the
biosphere, primarily due to a mixture of imperialism and capitalism, has resulted in un-
precedented degradation of natural ecosystems and related nutrient cycles. This trend has
been amplified by the processes of globalization which augments the objectification of
ecosystems for material gain and distribution. Poverty has also contributed to the process
of global objectification by eclipsing reason and ecological stewardship with material
necessity and survival tactics which often are in opposition to conservation. Together,
these imprudent practices of modern industrialized society are contributing to an ever
more stressed environment in which infectious diseases are both emerging and re-
emerging as formidable adversaries of public health.

Industrialization of the planet has resulted in many ills, the most salient of which being
climactic change which we now understand as a process of global warming. This process
has been determined to be a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions, most notably CO2
and NOx species, from industry and transportation. Many poorer nations are quick to
advance industrialism as a means of economic improvement and this trend seems only to
be on the rise. Indeed, 14 of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1980.(3)
As ambient land and water temperatures rise, the habitat of many vectors geographically
expands (3). Vector-borne diseases are prevalent, widespread and even endemic in many
tropical and sub-tropical regions of the biosphere. As the planet heats up, numerous
vectors are now able to inhabit regions they were previously unable to. Higher
temperatures can also affect “the biology and ecology of disease vectors and intermediate
hosts, the pathogens they transmit, and consequently, the risk of transmission.” (WHO,
2005). Thus, higher global temperatures as a result of industrialization have increased the
spread of many vector-borne infectious diseases.

Industrial expansion has also contributed to the emergence of infectious disease through
the process of deforestation. Agricultural practices, often inflated due to demand in the 1st
world, regularly make use of clear cut areas to develop crops for sale. The lust for wood
in the West has also fuelled the damaging enterprise. Deforestation disrupts the natural
habitat of many species, some who act as intermediate hosts for infectious diseases,
forcing these animals into closer contact with human populations in the search for
sustenance. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of transmission of zoonotic
pathogens. One example of zoonosis that is highly relevant is the transmission of H5N1
influenza A virus which, according to the World Health Organization, has established a
permanent ecological niche in poultry and is currently expanding its mammalian host
range(5). Deforestation may have contributed to this emergent threat by displacing wild
water fowl, which act as a reservoir for the virus, and bringing them into contact with
domesticated fowl.

Deforestation can also contribute to the emergence of infectious disease by displacing
large populations of people and creating ideal conditions for vector propagation. The
economically driven migration of workers to the forest fringe may bring people with little
or no immunity to an area where they are bound to be exposed to certain pathogens which
may be endemic to the region. Deforestation also causes water sheds to alter course,
leading to nutrient run off, local flooding and pooling of water. Stagnant water pools are
ideal breeding grounds for vectors of disease, particularly mosquitoes. In addition,
displacement of vectors themselves may also play a role in emergence :

“In Latin America, Chagas disease emerged as an important human disease after
deforestation caused the insect that transmits the infection to move from its wild natural
hosts to involve humans and domestic animals in the transmission cycle, eventually
transforming the disease into an urban infection that can now also be transmitted by
blood transfusion.” (1)

Thus, the continued arrogance of industrialism and its resultant commodification of
nature have contributed greatly to the emergence of many pathogens.

Behaviorally, the human race has exacerbated the threat of emergent diseases through
the practices of imperialism and globalization. Due to the primary area of concern for
transcontinental industry being the economic profitability of their enterprises, human
health and welfare are often completely ignored. With the advent of globalization,
modern industry will increase profit by securing manufacturing facilities in impoverished
nations, labor expenditure being a fraction of that in the modern world. In the process, the
behemoth of corporate industry often completely destroys local ecosystems, displacing
people and perpetuating the tide of cultural poverty which the WHO calls the deadliest of
all diseases. Today being World AIDS day, I am reminded of a speech by Stephen Lewis
in which he alluded to the fact that HIV/AIDS and the lack luster initiative by the world
powers to combat this growing epidemic is akin to cultural/socio-economic genocide.
Indeed, even if anti-malarial drugs (for example) were made available through wide
distribution networks to the afflicted populace, it would do little good as most of those
affected live in poverty and simply cannot afford the drugs. This line of reasoning leads
me to believe that social inequality and poverty are the single biggest factors driving the
contemporary surge in infectious diseases across the globe.

Of course, with poverty comes the degradation of public health infrastructure which is
necessary for controlling the spread of many emerging diseases. Often, the impoverished
live in unsanitary conditions as a result of economic or social displacement, not having
access to clean drinking water or proper sanitation systems. In such an unhygienic
situation, outbreaks of cholera and dysentery are common. These conditions, combined
with nutritional inadequacies characteristic of poverty, provide ideal breeding grounds for
new or re-emergent diseases. Indeed, “the resurgence of diseases once thought to have
been conquered stems from a deadly mix of exploding populations, rampant poverty,
inadequate health care, misuse of antibiotics and severe environmental degradation.”(6)
Degradation of public health infrastructure is also associated with promiscuous use of
antibiotics which contribute to the growing proportion of microbes now emerging with
pharmacological tolerance and immunity. Because drugs are scarce and often
unattainable, what little may be accessible may be improperly prescribed or
indiscriminately used furthering the problem of microorganism resistance.

Globalization contributes to the emergence of infectious disease, in part, by facilitating
the trade of goods and services across international boundaries. As the world markets
coalesce and intermingle it becomes more common for the trade of commodities to take
place over a wide geographical range. In this sense, it is commonplace for both flora and
fauna to cross international borders. Of course, both of these items may act as either
reservoirs for or intermediate hosts of infectious diseases. Even when tariffs or
restrictions prevent the large scale movement of biological entities across borders, the
underground trade of exotic plants and animals still continues further potentiating the
possibility of vector or microbe transmission. Also, new species may be introduced to
ecosystems where there are no natural predators. In such a case, the newly introduced
species would expand its population, perhaps exponentially, causing indigenous
populations to become extinct by successfully filling niche through secondary succession.
It is possible in such a stressed state that an infectious disease might emerge that could
successfully cross species barriers due to rapid genetic recombination. This could, in fact,
have devastating consequences locally,

“the greatest impact on ecosystem functions and services would be caused by a disease
that eliminates one or more keystone species and thereby generates a domino effect
through an ecosystem. This could result in the disruption of major natural production
systems, such as fisheries, other valuable biodiversity, essential geochemical cycles, or
all three.”(2)

International trade can have catastrophic effects at local levels due to emergent diseases.

Globalization can also lead to the emergence of pathogenic organisms through the
practice of tourism and international travel. An integral feature of globalization is
enhancement and facilitation of population mobility. Just as animals may act as
intermediate hosts, vectors and reservoirs of disease, so may humans. A tourist returning
back from a vacation may harbor pathogens unknowingly, introducing microbes into
populations with limited or no immunity. This too can have devastating consequences as
seen by the epidemic of smallpox introduced to the indigenous population by Columbus.
Public health infrastructure can prevent such an occurrence in contemporary times by
recommending vaccination prior to travel. These measures are elective, however, not
compulsory and many may choose not to opt for preemptive prophylaxis. Regardless of
prudential measures, however, some traveling will contract diseases endemic to the
region of destination for varying reasons.

Tourism is a function of imperialism, and as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,
it becomes more and more affordable to travel for pleasure. This, of course, increases the
possibility of diseases emerging in the affluent West which we have seen over the past 5
years in the form of SARS and Japanese Encephalitis.(3) As the volume of people
traveling increases, so does the threat of diseases emerging in North America and Europe
increase. While public health facilities strengthen their preparedness for emergent
disease, air travel still poses a significant risk as “it is well recognized that human and
cargo traffic facilitates the movement of pathogens across the world and since most
infectious diseases have an incubation period exceeding 36 hours, and any part of the
world can now be reached within this time frame, the potential for rapid geographical
spread is apparent.”(3) Thus, the mobility that imperialism affords to the elite may be the
very practice that condemns us in a pandemic situation, which the WHO deems currently
immanent regarding the H5N1 influenza A virus.(5)

The causal relationships between increasing emergent biological threats to the human
race and our blind pursuit of materialism are glaring clear at this particular juncture in
time. Having enjoyed all the benefice of modernism and industrial technological
advancement, the human animal is still ignorant to the fact that success is matter of
longevity afforded through compromise and mutualism not a matter of accumulation
afforded through destruction and parasitism. Imperialism has perpetually misunderstood
the fact that just because we can exploit something comfortably does not imply that we
ought to. Of course, ethics classes are suspiciously absent from an MBA curriculum.
Industrialization and its related ecological destruction are direct results of an absolution
of environmental stewardship in which empirical matter is regarded as a means to an end
rather than an end unto itself. Intuitively speaking, the biosphere as a sentient and
cognitive whole has little choice but to reflexively attempt to remove the insult we
affectionately refer to as homo sapiens. Inadvertently or not, the human species has since
the inception of industrialization attempted to reduce matter and environment to its parts
instead of understanding its entirety. It is precisely this reduction of ontological
understanding to the reactionary stance of empirical utilitarianism that has doomed
modernism to failure.


1. Heymann, David L. (2005) Social, Behavioral and Environmental Factors and Their
Impact on Infectious Disease Outbreaks. [Electronic version] Journal of Public Health
Policy. 26, 133-139

2. Meagher, Dr. Laura & Waage, Prof. Jeff (2006) Infectious Diseases: Their Future Effects on Ecosystems. (Summary of a 21 July 2005 Workshop) UK Department of Trade and Industry.

3. Saker, Lance et al. (2004) Globalization and Infectious Diseases : A Review of the Linkages. (WHO Publication No. TDR/STR/SEB/ST/04.2) Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

4. Will Global Climate Change Worsen Infectious Diseases ? (2005) Retrieved on Nov. 20, 2006 from Environmental Science and Technology on the web:

5. World Health Organization (2005) Influenza pandemic preparedness and response. (WHO Publication No. EB115/44) Executive Board : Author.

6. Worldwatch Institute (1996) Infectious Disease Surge: Environmental Destruction, Poverty to Blame. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2006 from the web:

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