The War of the Worlds: COVID-19 and the Climate Emergency

While the resolution of the 2020 election works its way through appeals, denials and temper tantrums, the transition continues to the eventual inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20th, 2021. Depending on their political affiliation, if any, people are ecstatic, angry, or indifferent – and yes, there are many of the latter.

At the same time, the natural world continues to shatter the delusions and self-illusions of humanity with its own timescale and processes; even a casual reading of history shows the profound effects of natural disasters and pandemics on civilizations and societies.

Pandemics in particular have devastated most civilizations.

From the Plague of Athens in 430BC through the Black Death (1350) to the Spanish flu (1918) and the other pandemics of SARS, Ebola, and HIV, the ravages of nature have changed the destinies of individuals and the course and shape of human history.

Now, COVID-19 and the climate emergency threaten the conception and future of human society. While COVID-19 may not be the existential threat the climate emergency threatens, it is still significant.

The US has exceeded 245,000 deaths and 11 million cases from COVID-19, with little relief in sight (worldwide, the numbers are 55 million cases and 1.3 million deaths). The colder weather and holiday season portends another spike in cases and death – with at least the early part of 2021 having the potential to set new milestones of death and grief.

The recent news that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are more than 90% effective is certainly welcome and promising. But that needs to be weighed against the time period required to get an effective vaccine from the various drug makers to the majority of people in this country, let alone worldwide. And that assumes COVID-19 is unlike the influenza virus, which would mean no single generation of vaccines would be effective.

It appears humanity will be dealing with some form of COVID-19 for years.

As we have seen this year, the climate emergency is growing worse. Fires, droughts, and floods were in the news all year. Hurricane Iota – a Category 4 storm – has just slammed Nicaragua in November, which is historically the time the hurricane season winds down.

The average US temperature for the year (2020) is 2.4 F above the 20th century average. Carbon dioxide reached 415 ppm in 2019 (350 ppm was considered the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point).

And an ominous discovery was reported in October. International scientists aboard a Russian research ship found methane hydrates in the continental slope of Eastern Siberia have begun to release, and methane has been found down to over 1100 feet in the Laptev Sea.

While the results are only preliminary and will require analysis prior to formal reporting, this indicates the long-feared process of methane release into the atmosphere has begun, giving rise to the fears of a methane bomb that rapidly accelerates planetary heating. Read more here.

And all of this brings me to The War of the Worlds and its relevance for today.

Unless they read H.G. Wells’ novel, many older generations’ first acquaintance with The War of the Worlds was the 1953 movie by George Pal and starring Gene Barry. The relentless Martians with their death rays were terrifying – at least to me when I first saw the movie as a child. It took becoming an adult to find out what real terror is.

For later generations, Stephen Spielberg and Tom Cruise revisited the novel in 2005, with better special effects if nothing new in concept. And there have been several television series based on the novel.

In the novel, as in the movies, the Martians live in the machines they use – in effect, high-tech bubbles to protect their weak flabby bodies (something that could be said for an unfortunately large percentage our population).

Their machines wreak destruction to humanity and the structure of its societies, until the Martians, invulnerable to human technology, succumb to Earth’s pathogens, or as Wells wrote, “by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

It should be noted that viruses, unlike bacteria, were unknown when Wells’ serialized his novel in 1897; Martinus Willem Beijerinck, a Dutch microbiologist, discovered and named the virus the next year.

The threats of COVID-19 and climate change, it seems to me, are often reported as if they are invaders from some other planet – destroying the sense of our invulnerability given the societies we have created in the developed world (the developing countries and global South have no such illusions).

The common theme I hear, at least on the news, is that people need to get on with their lives, with the emphasis on “their”, as if their reality is the only true one.

Wells would have had no such misconceptions.

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866. When he was eight years old, a broken leg left him bedridden for months, which he spent reading and developing his first interest in writing.

Later, as a teenager, he spent a year studying biology at the Science School at Kensington, studying under the mentorship of Thomas Henry Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, for the manner in which he advocated Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Becoming a teacher, Wells taught science at a number of schools until 1893 when he was stricken with what was thought to be tuberculosis. Unable to teach or work, he turned to his love of writing. And his ability to write compelling stories was quickly discovered and revealed to a wide audience through serialization of his novels.

The Time Machine (1895) revealed his attitudes towards the labor conditions of his time, with the Eloi living the life of the upper classes in abundance and light, with the Morlocks, representing the underclasses, living and working in darkness and brutality.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) deals with moral responsibility and what happens when humans interfere in nature. Cruelty and indifference to suffering follow.

The War of the Worlds is a commentary on the “survival of the fittest”.

The same year Wells became ill, his mentor Huxley gave a lecture at Oxford in which he attacked the idea of “social Darwinism”; that was the notion that human society as it is existed reflected the natural order. Huxley argued that human society should be a bastion against the sometime cruel indifference of the natural world.

Huxley’s arguments could be made today and be just as relevant. Beliefs such as “the American Century”, “I worked hard to get what I got”, and “the end of history” demonstrate that social Darwinism is still embraced by many in power.

Many people refuse to see or act on the understanding that many problems are created by humanity and its civilizations – whether by wet markets or extensive burning of fossil fuels – and the poor suffer the most and require the help of the societies with the power to create the bastions to protect them.

Beset by the natural world and its systems and processes, our machines and technological bubbles will not eliminate the threats. Our brittle civilizations – no matter the age – are just that.

We always have been, are, and will be the Martians.

While individuals may not be hurt or suffer themselves, Wells would argue we all have a role in creating a society that protects everyone and with the understanding that humanity can only adapt to the natural world, not dominate it.

If we do not work collectively to address this pandemic, and future ones, as well as work to reduce the inevitable consequences of the climate emergency, our world will become that of a very few Eloi with the majority of us becoming Morlocks.

Author: Tom

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