Humanity's Fate In Criminal Hands: How many years would it take, I wonder, before the greatest criminal act of human history – the deliberate release of a genocidal virus – came to be regarded as the singular, terrible, but absolutely necessary, act which prevented an incorrigibly rapacious human species from cooking itself, and just about every other living thing on Planet Earth, to death?
IT WOULD BE the greatest crime in human history. The ravages of Genghis Khan’s armies; the anguish of the slave trade; Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”; Stalin’s purges; Hitler’s Holocaust; the combined death tolls of World Wars One and Two: all of these nightmares would pale in comparison. The great pandemics of history: the Black Death especially, which carried-off between a third and a half of the human communities it infected; might come closer. But, only in the Western Hemisphere has humankind ever experienced anything remotely like the crime I’m about to describe.
It is estimated that the human population of the Americas in the years immediately prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late Fifteenth Century stood, conservatively, at 30 million. By the time the microbes unleashed upon the indigenous peoples of North and South America by their European carriers had done their work, that figure had plummeted to less than 5 million. Within a century, Europe’s viral exports had reduced the human population of the Americas by between 80 and 90 percent.
So overwhelming was this sudden depopulation of the Americas that it ended up affecting the global climate. Human communities across the Americas had relied upon wood for heating and construction. Forest clearance was also necessary for the cultivation of crops. The sudden elimination of millions of human beings, leading to the disappearance of entire communities, led to the rapid advancement of forests across thousands of square miles on both continents. The increased sequestration of carbon which resulted from this natural process of reforestation lowered the level of atmospheric CO2 and triggered what became known as the “Little Ice Age” of the Seventeenth Century. Some scientists are even arguing that the sudden depopulation of the Americas marks the true beginning of the Anthropocene – the current geological age, in which human-beings are themselves responsible for generating planet-wide ecological change.
To the worst criminal in human history, the terrible fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas would likely prove cruelly instructive. A highly contagious viral infection, against which human-beings possess absolutely no defence, is clearly capable of wiping out close to 100 percent of any population it infects. Assuming the motive for the world’s worst criminal is a determination to save the biosphere’s other life forms, the catastrophic depopulation of the America’s during the Sixteenth Century offers another lesson. Eliminating 80-90 percent of humanity at speed may be the only means of sequestering sufficient carbon to arrest the effects of anthropogenic global warming. Combined with the sudden cessation of virtually all industrial pollution, the unchecked growth of forests might just be enough to save the planet.
Who could do such a thing? Well, the criminal would have to be extremely wealthy. Rich enough to hire microbiologists sufficiently skilful to develop not only a humanity-winnowing virus, but the vaccine required to ensure that the “right” people survived it.
Some Silicon Valley billionaire with a God complex, perhaps? He might even have bought a huge chunk of New Zealand’s South Island high-country to hide in when the bodies start falling. It’s even possible that this genocidal billionaire might decide to turn New Zealand into a human ark: the place where humanity’s seed-corn can be kept safe for the moment when a terribly chastened, but indubitably wiser, “Humanity 2.0” can begin again.
How many years would it take, I wonder, before the greatest criminal act of human history – the deliberate release of a genocidal virus – came to be regarded as the singular, terrible, but absolutely necessary, act which prevented an incorrigibly rapacious human species from cooking itself, and just about every other living thing on Planet Earth, to death?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 28 February 2019.