Microbes: The Other Climate Crisis is an 80,000-word non-fiction exploration of the history, politics and economics of the petrochemical industry and its green alternatives. It broadly argues for the critical need to stop killing microbes - in humans and the environment. The book explores what causes superbugs, why we can't find the wherewithal to make new antibiotics, and the inherent problem with trying. When we kill human microbes, we not only tip the balance in favour of superbugs we create chronic diseases of all stripes. With superbugs on the march (5 million deaths per year and counting) and chronic diseases collectively amounting to a colossal plague dwarfing anything in human history (41 million people per year for 71% of all deaths and climbing), it's a pretty dreadful scenario. But that's not the end of it.
When you consider that those drugs are only partially broken down by the human body and make their way into the environment where they proceed to kill environmental microbes, it becomes a whole separate talk show. All classes of drugs and most chemicals do significant damage to human microbes and presumably to environmental microbes too (given that we know that antibiotics are sitting in soils 70 years after they got there with not much sign of deterioration), it's a pretty safe bet that we're doing wholesale damage to the microbes of the planet.
If you give antibiotics to a child, you're setting them up for an increased chance of chronic disease. When you give them to the planet, you kill the mechanism for cycling greenhouse gases. The microbes we kill in oceans and soils and even in the air through the release of petrochemicals (not just drugs, fertilizers, pesticides, sanitisers and industrial chemicals) kill the microbes that turn greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or deliver nutrients to soils or store carbon in the ground. Microbes collectively regulate the release of carbon. But we're only paying attention to the release of carbon emissions, not the microbes whose job it is to cycle them. We need to pay equal attention to both ends of the burning candle. Trying to blow out only one end isn't going to work.
Our medicines almost exclusively come from fossil fuels. When we stop drilling for energy sources, how will that effect our ability to make medicines even if you overlooked their devastating effect on microbes?
We evolved from the primordial ooze. Microbes are the forerunners of human cells. Every system in the human body works by way of microbes. We didn't just crawl out of the primordial ooze, wipe ourselves off with wet wipes, don a suit and go to work. We're killing the foundation of our existence, and we might want to stop doing that before it's too late. But how? We don't have any other form of medicine, do we?
I arrived at this project when my child was diagnosed with a superbug infection. I found a large, new policy area to explore. Drugs don't work on superbugs, so we had to find green alternatives. I was delighted that they worked - but why did no one else have access to them? Why weren't they proven to the same extent as conventional medicines? Did these things really work against superbugs? Those answers were easy enough to come by though they required some research. The rest of the questions came from interrogating my assumptions. Could there have been other causes? Could the damage be broader than infection? (In my kids their infections had presented as severe chronic disease, so I wondered). The damage being caused by widespread use of petrochemicals in every facet of our lives was beyond what I could have imagined when I started the project.
The perverse thing about excluding green medicines is twofold. It's absolutely rooted in historical wrongs - colonial trade wars that stripped medicinal crops from subjugated people and created legal frameworks that exclude green medicines from profit and elevate only things that are original discoveries. But secondly, families living in poverty-stricken countries riddled with superbugs and chronic diseases probably have the medicines they need growing in their garden, but without any incentive to look, we'll never know which ones could be effective.
The book traces all of this and then provides policy and practical suggestions for households and governments to turn this thing around. Green medicines are waiting in the wings ready to be used. Very little R&D would be necessary because they already exist. We just need to remove the old segregation blinkers to be able to see them for the miraculous opportunities they present.
Please note: I am massively pro-vaccine - they preserve far more microbes than drugs, and I understand that pharmaceutical medications will be needed going forward. I'm just asking for balance to save ourselves from the enormous burden of chronic disease and environmental disasters that microbe destruction creates.