In the pre-scientific western world, sudden outbreaks of disease were often attributed to witches or other human agents of the supernatural. In many parts of the non-western world today, witchcraft is still feared and blamed. The need to seek human scapegoats for disease and general ill fortune seems part of our psychological makeup. Even in the contemporary West, we still seem to have the same psychology although in a different costume.
The twin cases of the world-wide collapse of amphibian populations and the colony-collapse disorder which affected the world’s bees, show the modern world’s need to find human scapegoats for natural disasters. In both cases human actors were initially blamed for the dire effects of diseases caused by microorganisms.
The rapid fall in amphibian populations was first noted in the 1980s. Immediately, the cry went up that the amphibians were being wiped out due to pesticides, ozone depletion, water pollution, habitat destruction and other activities linked to the productive classes of humanity. Thousands of papers have been written over the last 20 years, linking steep declines in amphibian populations to the activities of anyone engaged in creating food, clothing, shelter, medical care and all of the other necessities and luxuries of life. [Old examples here and here.] In the last two years, however, it became clear that the decline was caused by a natural plague caused by the evolution of the fungus Chytridiomycosis into a more virulent form. Humanity’s contribution to this plague seems limited to possibly accidentally spreading the fungus via modern transportation methods. However, migrating birds are probably the main culprit since they share habitat with the same marshy areas that so many of the amphibian species inhabit.
In the last five years, bee colonies around the world have died out in staggering numbers. Immediately, the productive classes were blamed for their use of pesticides, genetically engineered crops and even cell phones. All of these causes were advanced by serious people such as mainstream environmental groups including Greenpeace. In the end, the collapse has been completely explained by naturally mutated pathogens. [h/t Instapundit] Bees are highly susceptible to infection because they live in compact groups of genetically similar individuals. Bees also rather routinely end up in the wrong hive. Such conditions are perfect for the rapid spread of disease and colony collapses have been documented for centuries.
These social responses to two natural plague events are just two instances of a common practice to reflexively blame the productive elements of western civilization for any negative event or even neutral change in the natural world. Just as pre-scientific people blamed witches or Jews for disease outbreaks, some people in the modern world seek to blame the productive members of society for outbreaks of diseases in animals. Just as with witch trials, the revelation that the initial suspicions were groundless does not seem to prevent the same suspicions from arising the next time something bad happens.
In the 1970s, the cooling trend of the period of 1940-1975 was blamed on productive people cutting down trees and emitting particulate pollution. When the cooling trend ended and a warming trend began, the warming trend was blamed on the productive people. This suggests that when the earth cools again, we will see the blame for that laid upon the productive as well.
We think we’re so much wiser than our forbearers, but we still wrestle with the same sociological expressions of the genetically programmed foundations of our psychology. We make the same errors as our forbearers, we merely dress them up in different costumes.