Today, total war proves to be a dangerous business.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
My class and I have been
looking at the bubonic plague. It was the largest
slaughter the human race has ever experienced, but
it may not've been the worst. The combination of
disease and genocide brought to North America by
16th-century explorers and conquerors didn't kill
as many people as the plague. But it killed a
greater fraction of one continent's population.
Whole races vanished from parts of the Caribbean.
European disease, which fell upon the original
population like a terrible hammer, was inflicted
innocently, since we understood nothing about
disease. But the awful corollary is that our
ignorance might still be capable of terrible
damage. So now a group from Harvard looks at what
we call "new diseases" -- AIDS, Legionnaire's
Many "new" diseases are quite old. Black lung was
with us for years. It simply had no one to speak
for it. Appalachian miners had no voice. Chronic
fatigue syndrome isn't new, only we used to
tolerate it. Highly contagious diseases that're
only latent for a short time tend to stay isolated.
Only small groups know they're there.
Other new diseases are mutations of older ones,
brought on by changing population dynamics and
environments. Growing coastal algae blooms have
been enriched by sewage from land and from ships.
They form stew pots, rich in nitrogen and
phosphorus. Bacteria grow in abundance, spread, and
mutate as well.
As late as the mid-70s we thought our long struggle
with infectious disease was almost over -- that
antibiotics and hygiene had triumphed. Then whole
new strains started popping up, and old diseases
reemerged. Suddenly an awful truth came home to us:
On the one hand, a disease can only kill a
population by wiping it out all at once. Bubonic
plague failed to do that in the 14th century, and
humankind came back stronger than ever. Only in the
16th and 17th-century Americas did brutality and
disease do enough damage that the native population
never could fully recover. Yet it did survive.
Now we turn about and try to exterminate harmful
microorganisms. We have killed smallpox. And polio
seems to be doomed. But lower life forms are
sophisticated. What our chemical assaults have
done, over and over, is to create new strains of
germs and of insects as well.
We needn't be very clever to see grim analogies --
the war on cancer, the war on crime, the war on
drugs, the war on cockroaches. Total war rarely
succeeds. It is unwelcome news, but what we need to
do is devise complex and mixed strategies. We need
to be patient, to be subtle, and to speak the
language of compromise -- when we fight any of our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds