In this short fiction piece, Earth system scientist Jonathan Donges and design practitioner Seth Denizen take us through a speculative superbug future in which a globalized technosphere turns into an antibiotic-resistant catastrophe. Caught up in a mass quarantine, humans begin to realize how their own organism simply dissolves into a co-evolutionary nexus of bacteria, their own selves, and the technological environments of their own creation.
Back in the twenty-first century, human societies worldwide became aware of the planetary network of co-evolutionary interdependencies and feedbacks connecting the social, technological, biological, and environmental spheres. Triggered by a highly improbable but critical incidence of mutation and horizontal gene transfer between bacterial species in New York and Hong Kong, global health services collapsed under a surge of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. This started a textbook-like chain, culminating in a mental transition in how humans perceived themselves in relation to their environment. It became unclear, even irrelevant, whether we considered the technosphere, including its engineered organisms, as our own extended phenotypes or whether we were, in fact, parts of the extended phenotypes of bacterial cells that exploited us to create nourishing, highly designed environments fostering their reproduction—a Möbius band of entangled ideas and causal dependencies. Dialectical distinctions between humans and bacteria were dissolved into an undifferentiated anthropocenic nexus. It then became possible to ask new questions. Were micro-organisms responsible for causing global warming, environmental deterioration, and biodiversity loss of multicellular species? We did not know. We did not care.
The city of Hong Kong was covered by a metallic sheet that glimmered in the light of the fading sun. Over the last few decades, nanoparticles of metal from the abandoned steel industries had been integrated in the matrix produced by the bacteria. This reinforced the fibers and the cellulose of a biofilm that formed sharp spikes reaching upward to the sky. It was impenetrable by most other organisms.
On the edge of the rain forest in Asia, things were changing. Historically, population numbers in this area had been low and stress on the neighboring forest ecosystems was low. The population had been able to sustain itself on the resources that were local to the area. After decades of growth, the population exploded. This put stress on the local population and caused people in this area to go deeper into the forest to gather wild meat. By evolutionary chance, an animal that was hunted carried a strain of bacteria that this population had not encountered before. The bacteria passed from the hunted animal to the hunter and spread very rapidly among the human population through human networks of transportation, causing more disease and death.
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… and they thought they had created an ideal society. They had willingly sacrificed their mobility in the name of safety. At the prophets’ instructions, the sterile buffers around the once-isolated production centers enclosed the center city. All past vulnerabilities had been sorted out: the bugs removed and the wilds tamed. The new center was believed to be perfect, but after that one uncalculated mutation, the realization came immediately. With the single breach, the prophets’ calculations were immediately proven false. With the single breach, the inertia became irreversible. They watched it happen: the alarms sounded as waves of new, certainly deadly strains pulsed outward across the buffer, each solution serving to intensify and quicken the microbial advance toward the center. The solutions, whose rings were once symbols of the prophets’ immense certainty, now marked each successive step closer to the end. The center’s failure sparked a new collective reaction: with neither panic nor resignation, the people found themselves in an interminable ellipsis.
Anja Seidinger lives in Messel, a small city near Frankfurt. She works as a stewardess for Lufthansa on the airline’s long-distance flights. Not knowing that she had become a host for multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, she visited her parents in their retirement home. One week later, several elderly people were reported to be displaying the symptoms of the infection: fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. Then, vomiting, diarrhea, and a rash followed, along with decreased liver and kidney function. Mr. Stock, aged seventy-one and already in poor health, is reported to have died after fifteen days. The German authorities put the retirement home under quarantine by fencing the house off from the surrounding neighborhood. The residents were delivered food, but were denied any medical or care assistance. Mrs Seidinger was also isolated for an unknown length of time from the city. It is reported that children have thrown stones at the home and have broken a window.
There were scientists who found a solution to the problem of the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. They developed new human–bacteria relationships through genetic modification of humans. The experiment did not produce the effect foreseen by the scientists. For unknown reasons, the new Bacto-Humans lost their desire for food. The thought of food simply failed to produce any reaction or desire to eat. The food was there, but the desire for it was gone.
In the end, it was increasingly clear that all meaningful dialogue with microbial life had somehow been neglected. The Earth, after all, was always theirs. What we used to call antibiotic resistance appears to us now as more of an insistence on the primacy of life over death that we all fundamentally share in the deeper stratifications of our entangled genetic matter. Our fear of the mob, which characterized so much of our microbial imagination, seems now like an anachronistic story in the literary genre of apocalyptic fiction. It’s true that when we look at the birds in the sky, we now see the flu rather than the flying. Even the sky itself seems alive, carrying its cargo of dust and strange degrees of self-replicating life around the world. In these co-evolutionary currents, we had to learn to swim with the rip tide, letting it carry us out to sea, so that we might make our way back, in time.