Transporting Germs

Hadley Roach

         In his Guns, Germs & Steel (1997), Jared Diamond reveals the roots of humanity’s most virulent epidemics.  Examining early humans’ shift from hunter-gathering patterns to a more agrarian lifestyle, Diamond argues that intimate contact with “the lethal gift of livestock” (195) directly resulted in an unprecedented spread of germs.  In other words, early human settlements provided a breeding ground for microbes that could never have proliferated amongst hunter-gatherer society. 

         Three major factors contributed to the “germ bonanza” (Diamond, 205). First, agriculture was able to sustain a much larger group of people who could incubate and spread disease.  Second, early farms were generally unsanitary places; says Diamond, “Sedentary farmers became surrounded not only by their own feces, but also by disease-transmitting rodents attracted by stored food” (Diamond, 206).   While nomadic peoples could leave their waste behind them, settlers had to live amongst it. Finally, intimate contact between farmers and their domesticated animals allowed diseases to cross between species--according to Diamond, the human illnesses measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, and malaria are all derived from domesticated farm animals.  It truly seems, according to Diamond, that all human epidemics were cultivated and bred in agricultural settlements.

         However, if the immobility of agrarian society was the initial cause of the “germ bonanza” (Diamond, 205), improvements in transportation technology have been the reason for its continued evolution.  From the earliest trade routes to the explosion of a modern tourism industry, epidemics have been spread and intensified through the technology of travel.  One of the earliest known examples of the power of germ diffusion occurred in the Roman empire.  Around 165 AD, as trade increased between Rome and India, “smallpox, which was new to the Mediterranean area and therefore in its most virulent form, had a very high mortality rate… The death toll was around a quarter of the population” (Ponting, 228).

         Examples of such pestilential plagues multiply as the technology of travel improves through history.  In the age of European expansionism, Western diseases spread rampant throughout the world.  From the seat of agriculture, ships carried the germs that decimated hunter-gathering societies the Americas; says Ponting, “The first disease to strike was smallpox, which reached Hispaniola in 1518 and Mexico in 1520… Everywhere the results in a population with no natural immunity were catastrophic” (230).  The introduction of smallpox and, subsequently, measles, typhus and influenza, is estimated to have killed twenty-four million defenseless people by 1600 AD.

         As sanitation and medical technologies have evolved to limit the spread of germs, transportation technology has also improved.  The rate at which any particular microbe can be transmitted from one part of the planet to another has, lethally, increased dramatically. Specifically, advances in air travel have made the world feel small and boundless—people, and the germs they carry, can reach any destination in a matter of hours.  The travel industry is one of the largest in the world—its sales amount to about 80 billion dollars annually.  Its booming success means that sickness is almost uncontainable.  Specifically, the history of the AIDS pandemic illustrates just how susceptible our shrunken world is to the spread of disease.

         AIDS was first recognized in 1981. Like the historical epidemics that Diamond and Ponting analyzed in their work, the AIDS virus evolved from animals—probably chimpanzees.  Since 1981, the virus has killed more than 25 million people worldwide; in the year 2007 alone, 2.7 million people died of AIDS. Meanwhile, the number of people infected with the disease continues to grow.  It is hard to imagine that the AIDS pandemic would have spread so thoroughly over the world without the capacity for heavy national and international travel;, a website providing information about the disease, argues that soaring infection rates can be attributed, largely, to travel:

“Both national and international travel undoubtedly have a major role in the spread of HIV. In the US, international travel by young men making the most of the gay sexual revolution of the late 70s and early 80s would certainly have played a large part in taking the virus worldwide. In Africa, the virus would probably have been spread along truck routes and between towns and cities within the continent itself. However, it is quite conceivable that some of the early outbreaks in African nations were not started by Africans infected with the 'original' virus at all, but by people visiting from overseas where the epidemic had been growing too. The process of transmission in a global pandemic is simply too complex to blame on any one group or individual.”

As this quotation illustrates, the complex travel patterns of the modern world make it nearly impossible to regulate or even to be aware of the spread of disease.  The AIDS pandemic is an all too immediate example of the world’s lethal, uncontrollable disease trade.  It has also provided a harsh template of what the future might hold—new “scares” about different pandemics have, justifiably, taken hold of the news. Many of these are centered on the food industry.  In 2006, the fear of an “avian flu” pandemic—“a looming health menace,” according to the New York Times—sent The World Health Organization into a panic.  If such a pandemic were to strike, would international transportation come to a halt?  Would entire populations be quarantined?  These are questions without answers—it seems probable that the rise of another worldwide epidemic would inevitably mean a catastrophic loss of life and money.

         The gradual history of transportation—starting, ironically, with the cessation of movement in early agrarian settlements—has led up to a precarious present.  Fears of mutant strains of microbes, new pandemics, and germ warfare permeate the news.  The potential of new “germ bonanzas,” to quote Diamond, has grown with the improvement of transportation technology.


Works Cited:

Diamond, Jared. 1997. "Chapter 11: Lethal gift of livestock." Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton & Co: pp. 195-214

Ponting, Clive. 1991. Chapter 11. “The Changing Face of Death.” Green History of the World. St. Martins Press, NYC: pp. 224-239

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last updated 3/30/2008