A walk along the ground floor of the Science Museum in London is an astonishing journey in time. One moment you stand at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, looking at the earliest steam locomotives, then, before you know it, you’re in the Space Age, looking at the technologies that flew us to the Moon.
The progress we’ve made over just a few generations is extraordinarily rapid, but we shouldn’t take its momentum for granted. Our continued technological development is neither inevitable nor irreversible.
Indeed, we’re already in danger of losing one of the most important fruits of modern technology: antibiotics. A timely warning comes from Maryn McKenna, who summarises her report – “Imagining a Post-Antibiotics Future” – in a piece for Wired:
“If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.
“But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.”
The things we currently see as part of the rough-and-tumble of life would, without antibiotics, become deadly again:
“We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.”
And then there’s a hugely important activity that most of us wouldn’t associate with antibiotics at all – intensive agriculture:
“Most of the meat we eat in the industrialized world is raised with the routine use of antibiotics, to fatten livestock and protect them from the conditions in which the animals are raised. Without the drugs that keep livestock healthy in concentrated agriculture, we’d lose the ability to raise them that way. Either animals would sicken, or farmers would have to change their raising practices, spending more money when their margins are thin. Either way, meat — and fish and seafood, also raised with abundant antibiotics in the fish farms of Asia — would become much more expensive.
“And it wouldn’t be just meat. Antibiotics are used in plant agriculture as well, especially on fruit. Right now, a drug-resistant version of the bacterial disease fire blight is attacking American apple crops. There’s currently one drug left to fight it…”
One might wonder what we’re doing using antibiotics so carelessly – surely such a precious resource should be reserved for life-saving medicine, not for liposuction, tattoo removal and battery chickens.
That, however, is the very essence of the modern age – an abundance that allows us the luxury of waste. Before long, we may have to return to older, more cautious ways of living.