Keith Farnish  @  ChelseaGreen

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Time’s Up from the Inside : Chapter 2

Posted on Saturday, October 17th, 2009 at 8:28 am by Keith Farnish

Not so much in the news as viruses, but bacteria can definitely be classified as “living” and — astonishingly — they comprise two of the three major branches of carbon-based life. For every non-bacterial form of life, there is at least one type of uniquely evolved bacteria, and who knows what else waiting to emerge. In fact, to ignore bacteria in a section about the different scales of life, would be tantamount to ignoring life itself.

Given its fundamental position in the Tree of Life, the idea that the impact of environmental change on bacteria — and hence it’s impact on us when affected thus — could be compressed into a single chapter was faintly absurd, so I had to spend a lot of time carefully picking out the most salient points; like this one:

The relationship between the growth rate of bacteria and temperature is remarkably consistent, such that it is possible for scientists to develop general rules to predict how quickly a specific type of bacteria will multiply at a certain temperature. For example, if a certain type of bacteria doubles in number every fifteen minutes under a certain set of conditions, e.g. in a test tube full of milk at 10°C, then under the same conditions but at 15°C the growth rate of that strain of bacteria can be very accurately predicted. David Ratkowsky and his colleagues at the University of Tasmania found the relationship held true in their own samples, and also in the 29 other examples they extracted from various pieces of scientific literature. In short, under ideal conditions, for every 5°C increase in temperature, bacteria divide between 50% and 100% faster. A mere 1°C increase can therefore increase the division rate of bacteria by around 20%.

We are faced with a situation whereby in the last 100 years the average global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the 1900 baseline. In September, the Hadley Centre, part of the UK Meteorological Office, laid out the stark prediction of a 4 degree rise in temperatures above the baseline by 2055 if we don’t do something to radically turn around the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is a potential 80% increase in bacterial division speed.

In a world that is becoming ever-more overcrowded and urbanised, with cities becoming the de facto location for the spilling over of populations into desparate living conditions, a disease as apparently easy to control as Typhoid Fever (just cap the infected wells) is bound to spread to places that were once free of infection. Add to this the prospect of a baking Earth and cities will become no-go areas:

Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, and is the cause of over half a million deaths worldwide every year. Unlike tuberculosis, typhoid will happily live outside of the body, specializing particularly in standing water containing human sewage. A pond, well or ditch only has to contain a fragment of faecal matter from the unwashed hands of a child for the entire water source to become infected; and the warmer the water is, the faster it will become infected until every person drinking that water is fated to ingest the bacteria. Vaccinations are an effective preventative measure against typhoid, and antibiotics can bring most cases under control, but studies carried out in Vietnam and throughout Africa have found numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant typhoid throughout the population, and even bacteria that appear to be changing the way that they evolve in order to survive.

The message carried later on in Time’s Up! is already becoming evident: our situation is a product not of humanity, but of a particular type of humanity. A type of humanity that will sacrifice its future in order to live a dream; a dream so many people are being sold, and are buying in ever larger numbers…

The kinds of conditions that much of the world’s population has to put up with are creating new breeding-grounds for diseases like typhus. The cramped, unserviced slums skirting Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Jakarta are barely acknowledged by the same authorities that pride themselves on their city’s economic opportunities. These shanty-towns, favelas and ghettos are the result of a multitude failed to deliver on their promises. Instead, the aspirant slum-dwellers get disease and a way of life that is often far worse than the one they wanted to escape from.

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