Guest blog by Palo Alto pathologist Mahendra Ranchod; see note at end
Date: January 2025
A few years ago, one of my cousins traveled around the world, trying to draw attention to problems facing our planet. She caused a great deal of panic, changed your life-styles, made millions sick and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. But after the pandemic, life went on as usual.
We have a way of changing our coats, our surface proteins, so I now emerge as a novel virus – Covid-25 in your lexicon – the cause of another pandemic. I hope to cause more havoc than my cousin, Covid-19, but I don't think I will achieve my goal. You may think that coronaviruses are malevolent but we are not. We are simply asking you to change the way you treat planet earth.
You call us simple structures, non-living organisms, just strands of RNA wrapped in a coat of protein, but we have been around for more than a billion years and we have seen changes you have not. So, let me give you my perspective: The main problem is that there are just too many of you. Your species, Homo sapiens, is more than eight billion strong, and if left to your own devices, you will soon be ten billion.
"Well, why is that a problem?" you ask. "Look at us, we've only been around for 200,000 years, and unlike other primates, we learned to use our hands. We discovered the power of fire; we made tools from wood, stone and metals; we learned to farm; we found ways to utilize resources around us – forests, rivers, oceans and riches buried in the earth - and we have become masters of the planet within just a few hundred years. We have traveled to the moon, we create machines that work for us, we write books, we compose glorious music, we build impressive buildings and our electronic devices allow us to do everything so much faster than anyone imagined. Isn't that progress? Would you prefer us to remain hunter-gatherers?"
No, I'm not asking you to be stuck in time, but my family and I are asking that you take a fresh look at the planet and its resources. Your species has to face up to the challenges of its success. The planet can't support all eight billion of you, especially if you all aspire to live like privileged Americans. Your species, sapiens, is present in every habitable corner of the planet, and when you find new territory, you claim it, you change it and - knowingly or unknowingly - you displace or destroy other species.
You don't understand that the planet supports a complex biosystem. It wasn't always that way; it took more than four billion years of evolution to produce this wonderfully complex world. Why don't you spend a few minutes contemplating the complexity and beauty of everything around you? Have you seen a dazzling white glacier calve? Have you wondered how a tiny seed can grow into a majestic oak? Have you watched a Spiny Orb spin its tensile web? Have you watched how industriously the Masked Weaver builds its nest? Have you wondered how the fusion of a sperm and an egg – two single cells - could possibly give rise to an amazingly complex human being? Isn't everything around you impossibly marvelous, isn't everything around you astonishing? Are you willing to destroy all this?
"Hold on, hold on, coronavirus, I think you're making too many assumptions," replied President Xi Guanmian, who happened to be visiting the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, my current abode. "We co-exist peacefully with everyone in the world. I agree we've made mistakes, but we have a host of new technologies that will solve our problems."
Think again, Mr. President. This is a problem caused by humans. This is a human problem that requires a human solution. Technology will mitigate some of your challenges but technology is not the solution. I'll say it again: there are just too many of you, too many humans. If everyone in the world wants to live the life of modern man, you will have to reduce the world's population by half. Frightening, isn't it? How on earth will you do that?
I can assure you that my family and other members of our community, like the Influenza family, have tried to help. The Flu family did a great job in 1918 - an event you call the Spanish flu - but we are concerned that the balance of power has shifted and that we can no longer make enough of a dent in your numbers. Even though we change our protein coats every year, like Halloween costumes, your scientists see through our garb; they spot us much too quickly, decipher our RNA code and our protein structure, and within months, devise sophisticated PCR tests to find where we lurk. And your concerted efforts to produce a vaccine limits the time we can reign freely.
So, President Xi, if we can't help you and your species, how will you cut the human population to four billion? You could do it with nuclear weapons, but that that would be too dirty, too much collateral damage, just too many unwanted side effects.
President Xi thought for a while and said, "My government has a plan but I can't share it with you because you and your friends travel all over the world and I doubt you can keep a secret."
Well, President, I don't have time for an extended debate because I have a job to do: I have to create havoc around the world. But before I leave, let me tell you why my family is so angry, and how we see your future.
Your species is arrogant. You think you have the right to change this planet for your benefit - and for your benefit alone. Look at what you have done: You pollute the air; you dump industrial wastes into rivers; your indestructible plastics strangle life in the oceans; you burn and cut down forests for personal need and corporate greed; you shrink animal habitats, making it impossible for birds and butterflies to complete their annual migrations; and you melt glaciers and the arctic cap because you love gas-guzzling cars more than you care about polar bears and arctic seals. I can go on and on but you get the gist of what I'm saying. Your species can do amazing things but you don't respect the planet enough. This is the only planet we have. There is only one of its kind. Don't ruin it.
The President did not like being lectured to; he was accustomed to being in charge. His allergies were bothering him again so he raised his faceguard, extracted two tissues from a box offered by his trusted aide and wiped his leaky nose. "Well listen to me, corona-what's-your-name, I think you are a pessimist, and besides, you have no right to talk to me in this demeaning way. I am president of China. I'm leaving."
Just one more minute of your time, Mr. President. Quite frankly, I see a dismal future for your species. I see a great deal of pain - not in the distant future - but in your lifetime - and climate change will be the catalyst. I see rising oceans swamping coastal areas; I see frightening fires and destructive, unseasonable storms; I see extinction of more and more species; I see wholesale extinction of bats and bees, your pollinators; I see a desperate shortage of food and fresh water; I see hordes of migrating humans seeking refuge - only to be turned away by the military might of the haves; I see armed conflicts between countries of the world because your species cannot understand that earth's resources should be shared by all.
Here is one possible scenario. The disastrous effects of climate change may cause a sharp decline in sapiens, but the society that emerges from this catastrophe will not be egalitarian. There will be an ugly division between the haves and the have-nots. A minority - the elite - will have total power, live in fortified enclaves and enjoy what remains of the earth's resources. The vast majority will be disenfranchised and …
"Stop! Stop!" interrupted President Xi, "Stop your histrionic rantings, stop this ridiculous nonsense." The President did not like this sort of talk; it reminded him of feudal China, the China of his great-grandparents. President Xi was angry; his plan for a brief imperial visit to this top-secret, level-4, Biohazard laboratory was being thwarted by this pesky non-entity. He was going to make a speedy exit.
Covid-25 took a deep breath. Just one more thing, Mr. President. My family is not concerned about what happens in the next two or three decades. We are more concerned about what will happen by the end of this century.
The President's attention suddenly perked up and he asked, "What's that?"
The planet will survive. It will be different. There may be no mammals on earth but some insect species may survive. Life has a way of going on. There will be a new cycle of evolution.
"Impossible, what rubbish. I'm going," shouted Xi, and with that he stalked off in a huff, little knowing that one of my companions had made her way into the President's nasal cavity, and that he would be the first victim of the 2025 pandemic.
Contributor Mahendra Ranchod is a pathologist in Palo Alto, CA. His concern for the future of our planet, and frustration at our tardiness in addressing the most important issue of our time, impelled him to some "emergency gardening" during which he imagined the dialogue given above. Used with his permission.