Will a pandemic bring down civilisation?
By Debora MacKenzie FOR years we have been warned that a pandemic is coming. It could be flu, it could be something else. We know that lots of people will die. As terrible as this will be, on an ever more crowded planet, you can’t help wondering whether the survivors might be better off in some ways. Wouldn’t it be easier to rebuild modern society into something more sustainable if, perish the thought, there were fewer of us. Yet would life ever return to something resembling normal after a devastating pandemic? Virologists sometimes talk about their nightmare scenarios – a plague like ebola or smallpox – as “civilisation ending”. Surely they are exaggerating. Aren’t they? Many people dismiss any talk of collapse as akin to the street-corner prophet warning that the end is nigh. In the past couple of centuries, humanity has innovated its way past so many predicted plagues, famines and wars – from Malthus to Dr Strangelove – that anyone who takes such ideas seriously tends to be labeled a doom-monger. There is a widespread belief that our society has achieved a scale, complexity and level of innovation that make it immune from collapse. “It’s an argument so ingrained both in our subconscious and in public discourse that it has assumed the status of objective reality,” writes biologist and geographer Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, author of the 2005 book Collapse. “We think we are different.” A growing number of researchers, however, are coming to the conclusion that far from becoming ever more resilient,