by MICHAEL BRAUNSTEIN
Published November 12, 2010
It may be unfair to call biophobia a pandemic. Like the trumped-up charade known as the 2009 swine flu “pandemic,” it’s not true that most of the world is affected by biophobia, though it impacts far more people than swine flu ever did or will.
You haven’t seen biophobia in the headlines and don’t know what it is? Though not a mainstream media buzzword, its symptoms are everywhere. Meat processing plants, industrial milk production, clothing, sunglasses, shoes, packaging, car seats, carpets, bathrooms, bedrooms, banks and grocery stores — the signs of biophobia are all around us. Humans want to kill things that threaten us and we perceive threat everywhere, whether the threat is real or not. Our response to it is irrational, self-destructive and foolish.
The term is self-explanatory, a portmanteau of two common word bits: bio-, meaning “life” and phobia, meaning “irrational fear.” We are afraid of life.
Humans love life dead.
That observation doesn’t seem reasonable at first blush. How could living human beings be afraid of the very thing we cling to with our last breath? Ah, that is the irrational part because biophobia is indeed a common human condition and becoming more so.
It’s easy to comprehend when we consider our proclivity toward killing the smaller things around us like bacteria. We are in the throes of an ongoing war against bacteria on a minute-to-minute basis. The passion and intensity with which we throw ourselves into battle against these unseen threats is truly remarkable. Our goal of sterility seems to include the entire planet but it starts with trying to kill every bacterium that has the misfortune of being nearby, even if it means the death of us.
Stupidity at the Supermarket Our war on bacteria is active on all fronts. We have sterilizing wipes at the entryway of grocery stores because we’re afraid the shopping carts may have vicious viral remnants or creepy, crawly bacteria left behind from some other shopper. At the checkout counter, there is a bottle of sterilizing gel. But check out the circular logic here.
Give it some thought and and you'll conclude that using the pump-action bottle of gel actually will increase the likelihood of contact with the worst kind of bacterial boogie-man: the antibiotic-resistant strain. Here’s how that works for the checkout girl I saw using it. After every transaction, she turned to push the plunger on the “sanitizing” gel and rubbed some on her hands, three times in just the time I was in line. In between, I saw two other people touching the plunger. That means that over and over during her shift, legions of bacteria are finding their way to that plunger from scores of shoppers. The irony is that the bacteria that survive on that plunger that is coated time and again with the antibiotic gel are the bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant. And Checkout Charlene is touching that bacteria-laden surface again and again during her shift. And so are shoppers who use it. Nice try, folks.
All the while, exposure to these chemical sterilizers guarantees that bacteria will evolve (as they always do,) to resist whatever we throw at them and come back stronger and more likely to cause us trouble in the long term.
Worse, you’ll see these bottles of slimy chemicals at hardware stores, offices, churches, public bathrooms — everywhere the pandemic of biophobia has persisted.
The most irrational part of the whole thing is that the very species we are killing is essential to our survival.
“Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening.” — Gertrude Stein
Sanitizing gels create their own problems. They’re packed with chemicals that can kill many bacteria and some of those chemicals aren’t good for humans. Yet the very definition of phobia includes “a persistent, abnormal and irrational fear.” So it follows that we’d smear hazardous chemicals on our skin in a futile attempt to avoid bacteria, the vast majority of which are harmless or even beneficial. Our reactive compulsion to kill every perceived threat goes far beyond the microscopic world. We rationalize a reason to kill just about anything.
Walk through any nice middleclass neighborhood on a spring day and you’ll see folks outside spraying known carcinogens on their grass and around their house. Why? To kill the threatening bugs, spiders and crawly things that might bite us and cause an itch, God forbid. And woe to any six-legged creature who strays from its allowed domain and gets lost in our kitchen. Smashed like a bug, he is. (I can already hear you preparing the West Nile virus rationalization. Try this phrase: Risk versus reward.)
Now, I’m not willing to share dinner with flies, ants, mice, roaches or spiders. And I’m not preaching Jainism. But killing every insect or animal that ventures inside is futile and unnecessary and another symptom of biophobia.
In mass producing an industrial food supply and rationalizing its need by propagandizing that it’s the only way to feed the world (untrue) we create conditions that spawn bacteria. Our solution? Rather than remodel the system that promotes the unhealthy conditions, we try to answer at the back end by sterilizing our food. Make dead food even deader.
Whether one understands how we’ve made the process of cooking milk before we drink it necessary, common sense will tell you that cooking milk will change its nutritional content. The same goes for meat and vegetables and processed foods. We zap industrial meat with radiation, drench it in ammonia and try other ways to kill harmful bacteria that should never have gotten in the food supply to begin with. And still we recall tons of meat every year. Apparently what we are doing is not succeeding.
“Kill, kill, kill for peace. Near or middle or very far East.” — Tuli Kupferberg
The Fugs and recently departed American poet Tuli Kupferberg sang those words about the futility of seeking peace by killing. Humans aren’t only on a rampage to kill bacteria, bugs, flora and fauna indiscriminately but we apparently can rationalize killing millions of people in an equally futile attempt to guarantee safety. Well, we’ve been trying that solution since wars were invented. To cop a line from Dr. Phil: How’s that workin’ for ya?
Biophobia is the fear of life. Killing living things is not going to solve that fear, only make us more afraid. You can start by making peace with a few bacteria.