ISIS and ebola are just bogeymen

While we waste time panicking about jihadists and bacteria, real threats to human survival are actually coming to get us.


We are surrounded, these days, by life-threatening crises of global proportions. Events that will kill thousands, even millions, of innocents, that will fundamentally change our way of life and menace our very survival as a species.

Ebola? ISIS? You’re kidding, right? They are merely the latest iterations of media-fed panic that not so long ago was warning us in the west about SARS, bird flu, killer bees and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But why are we so preoccupied with these apocalyptic bogeymen? Why has the beheading of a few westerners riveted our attention when the wholesale killings of Muslims by ISIS has been received in relative silence? Why have we shrugged at the spread of ebola in Africa until the day it was carried onto a plane heading for the United States?

Is it because we only see the need to act when we, ourselves, feel threatened, no matter how infinitesimal the risk?

Then why haven’t we reacted to the fact that we are on a course that will see us empty the cupboards of Mother Earth within a few generations? We have eliminated 52 per cent of the animal population in the last 40 years, we have overfished some species into oblivion and created ruptures in the food chain that are drastically changing ocean ecology. As we grow more and more desperate for energy, we seek oil and gas at greater cost and with greater ecological risk in a mad rush to profit on it before it runs out. We treat our economy as a perpetual growth machine, ignoring the fact that much of what fuels it is finite. Meanwhile, we continue to increase our own footprint on the planet, with the population projected to grow from 7 billion to as much as 14 billion by the end of the century.

But how can crises like that compare to the drama of an ISIS video of a few western hostages being beheaded? Or of clean-up crews in haz-mat suits sweeping through the home of a Texas nurse? These are images that come straight from our best horror-movie traditions, frightening us to the core despite the odds that someone we know being infected with ebola is about as likely as having them chopped up by a chainsaw-wielding man in a hockey mask.

Ecological and economic collapse, on the other hand, well, we file that under the action-adventure category. Sure we know things could get bad, but why bother to change our relationship with the planet when we know Bruce Willis and a rag-tag team of scientists will manage to save us by diverting an oil-laden asteroid into orbit around Earth?


West_Texas_PumpjackWe worry too much about the wrong things.

Ebola needs to be controlled, but so does AIDS, which still kills about 1.2 million people a year in Africa compared to 4,000 deaths so far this year from ebola. If anything good comes out of this scare, it will be the sudden urgency in vaccine research spurred by western paranoia.

There are plenty of other health crises that merit front-page attention, including the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterium (MSRA) which kills 5,000 people a year in the U.S. Agricultural practices that encourage large-scale use of antibiotics to prevent rather than treat disease among animals has been linked to MRSA increases and studies have shown livestock-to-human transmission of the bacteria. Ending that practice might force you to pay a little more for your bacon-cheeseburger, though, so it’s not surprising it never makes the top of the local newscast.

We don’t need to create hysteria over imagined, exaggerated threats to our existence. There are plenty of real crises facing us, and the biggest of those is our apparent inability to recognize that our non-stop consumer culture is killing the planet that sustains us.

We don’t want to read about that, though, because then the imagined face of the enemy would cease to be some jihadist in a black hood or the image of some squiggly bacterium. We’d have to recognize that the true face of the enemy could well be the one staring back at us in the mirror. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.