Anthropocene Diseased: A Provocation

In late December 2019, health authorities in China confirmed dozens of pneumonia cases in Wuhan city. Preliminary investigations suggested the infection was likely transmitted from animals to humans. On January 22, 2020, experts declared that the etiological agent 2019-nCoV (SARS-CoV2) originated from bats (Gralinski & Menachery 2020). By early February, molecular epidemiologists identified a genetic similarity between 2019-nCoV in horseshoe bats and pangolins (a cross between an ant-eater and armadillo), which were sold at the Huanan wet market. These scientific reports contribute to the ongoing hypothesis of viral recombination between bats and pangolins, which in turn, infected humans (Lam et al. 2020; Liu et al. 2020; Lu et al. 2020).

A growing recognition of the shared susceptibility of humans and animals to infectious pathogens has contributed in recent decades to the concept of One Health. One Health is an approach to global health research that emphasizes the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental wellbeing, and it includes a correlative call to examine zoonoses (diseases that spread from animals to humans) vis-a-vis transdisciplinary collaborative efforts that target pathogenic activity at “the human-animal-environment interface” (Zinsstag et al. 2011). Planetary Health is another concept emphasizing the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health, but it takes a less multispecies approach than One Health, foregrounding the epidemiological entanglements of biology and biospheric processes, instead (Farman & Rottenburg 2019). In what follows, I discuss some of the conceptual consequences and epistemological limitations introduced by situating the problem of human health within a wider biosocial, multispecies ecology (see Kirskey & Helmreich 2010; Tsing 2015; Ticktin 2019). Despite its #trending status across the social sciences and humanities, I do insist that multispecies orientations are necessary for apprehending many of the problems posed by emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) today. Precisely because such attunements and their expressive idioms are (framed, at least, as) radical, however, I am surprised by the ease with which multispecies ecological orientations are so often (rhetorically) mobilized in ways that place human activities at the center of narratives about disease emergence!

In order to simultaneously rethink the centrality of human agency in worlds co-populated by nonhuman others while acknowledging the phenomena of infectious disease emergence at human-animal-environment interfaces, I suggest that it would be prudent to seriously question metaphorical uses of ecological frameworks in the apprehension of new EIDs today. For the continued use of these frameworks – even as they may be cast in somewhat different terms – smuggles old assumptions about nature vs. nurture into new problems.

Environmentally-Driven Narratives of Human-Driven Diseases

EIDs that are perceived to be ‘novel’ most often refer to pathogens that already exist, but have recently gained access to new host populations, such as humans. In fact, the majority of new EIDs – those increasing in incidence and expanding in geographic range today – arise from animals, with whom humans share genes, physiology, microorganisms, and environs (CDC 2020). Epidemiologists typically narrate infectious disease events with reference to their “drivers”, which is a term that signifies the antecedent, necessary conditions for a pathogen to emerge into susceptible populations. Interestingly, when it comes to the emergence and spread of zoonotic infections, the type of driver most persistently mentioned in both the eco-epidemiological and popular scientific literature is: the anthropogenic (a fancy term denoting human-driven factors). Allow me to offer a few quotes to illustrate my point:

“A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases like COVID-19, the viral disease that emerged in China in December 2019, to arise — with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, Planetary Health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections among the well-being of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems” (Vidal 2020).


“Anthropogenic environmental change leads to the emergence of infectious diseases in wildlife” (Chaber 2018).


“Today, approximately 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are zoonoses that result from various anthropogenic, genetic, ecologic, socioeconomic, and climatic factors” (Gebreyes, Wondwossen A et al. 2017).


“Although both wildlife and domesticated animal reservoirs can be considered important sources of EIDs, it is the anthropogenic influence on ecological systems that dictates the level of risk that operates at the interface between humans and animals in zoonotic disease emergence” (Hassell et al 2017).


“So how does [Ebola] spread? ‘The short answer is that …it mutated into a strain that was able to jump into humans because of human encroachment into the forests [the natural reservoir of the virus], and the decline of other animal populations that might have shielded us from [it]’” (Lewis 2015).


“Experts believe the next deadly human pandemic will almost certainly be a virus that spills over from wildlife to humans. The reasons why have a lot to do with the frenetic pace with which we are destroying wild places and disrupting ecosystems” (Quammen 2012).

This pattern of more or less blaming humans for disease emergence first struck me as strange during fieldwork in Peru between 2017-2018, while I was studying multi-sited implementations of the One Health approach by field epidemiologists. I have since maintained a sense of cautious amusement regarding the frequency with which zoonotic EID events are rhetorically explained as resulting from anthropogenic disturbances to ecosystems.

In no way whatsoever would I deny that an immense array of human activities, whether directly and indirectly, momentously reconfigures human-animal-environment interfaces in ways that, in certain times and places, facilitate spillover events and cross-species infections. There is a substantial and credible pool of evidence that links human activities and aggressions (at multiple scales) toward the environment with the accelerating rhythm of new and re-emerging infectious diseases (El Amri et al 2020). This is precisely the type of problem to which cross-sectoral global health initiatives like One Health (and adjacent movements like Planetary Health and EcoHealth) are responding when they emphasize the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health problems.

Instead, I want to point out that a narcissistic trope of human primacy is ushered into narratives of disease emergence, particularly regarding their causation. My concern is that reactivating a modernist trope of anthropocentrism inadvertently undermines the holistic approaches espoused by One Health, and the like, which might otherwise provide useful models for decentering and refiguring the human as but part of broader ecological systems and multispecies assemblages, collectivities, or corporations. To suggest that diseases emerge because of human-driven disturbances to ecosystems implies the existence of a wild nature, out there, where humans’ activities do not belong – into which, in fact, they intrude and cause adversity. Self-extricated from nature, humans are thereby cast as both cause and effect, agent and victim, destroyer and savior, of the harms that nature suffers in human hands.  Or so these stories goes…[i]

I suppose this account makes sense if you take for granted the metaphor of ecological equilibrium upon which it rests; then, one could easily imagine how human activities destabilize the ecosystems into which they intrude. But by framing it this way, one revitalizes the old binary concept of humans separated from environments. Consequently, EIDs appear as proof of the ecological damage done by humans; and pathogens represent the pathological configurations from which pathogens themselves emerge.

Why is this so satisfying an explanation for so many people?

To my mind, it is not. Concepts like multispecies ecologies first materialized as reminders against the inadequacy of Enlightenment notions of an untouched, idyllical,  undisturbed “nature” into which Man—the human, that is, with its culture, its civilization, and its technologies—encroaches. Humans, animals, and environments inform one another and co-constitute one another. So then why do our explanations of disease events so often reaffirm both the pathogen as an object of, and the human as a subject of, damage, opposition, and intrusion? And what might all of these strangely anthropocentric accounts of zoonotic infectious disease emergence more accurately be about?

Anthropocene-Driven Narratives of Environmentally-Driven Diseases

I believe that there is a pattern to these moralistic stories about human-induced zoonoses, one which moves in lockstep with the ethos of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a nomination that expresses the overwhelming impact that industrialized human activities have forced upon Earth’s natural processes, which has generated precarious conditions for much of the living world (including humans) but which are also pursued in the differential service of humans’ interests primarily. Implied in the Anthropocene is a story of human oppression, of long-standing global political and socio-economic inequalities, not only among humans as a species, but with other co-existing life forms together, and with the fate of the planet upon which we all live, as well.  It is a concept that has moved from the earth and climate sciences to anthropology and the social sciences to the arts and humanities to global health and social medicine.[ii] For example, the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission produced in an entire report on Planetary Health “to address the challenges of how best to protect and promote human health in the Anthropocene epoch” (Whitmee et al. 2015).

At first blush, the Anthropocene story is a fable about human agency (and hubris) and its influence on Earth’s biophysical systems. But perhaps a more potent takeaway from Anthropocene stories is that humans do so much more (and therefore so much less) than transform, or harm, or corrupt, or corrode, or taint, or sully, or destroy, natural environments. They also transform themselves, which includes the non-human others with whom they co-exist, who likewise adapt to environmental perturbations and transformations. It is this assembly of interconnected, transformative processes (and not just human activities) that drives the reconfiguration of human-animal-environment interfaces, where pathogens are understood to emerge.

For as much as humans, animals, and environments adapt, so, too, do the pathogens. Disease emergence in human populations could actually be seen as a sign of a zoonotic pathogen’s adaptation, that is, as an eco-evolutionary response to environmental and genetic changes coinciding with its capacity to subsist in new environments (i.e. host populations). It is undeniable that human activities do have the potential to directly and/or indirectly influence pathogen adaptation by making themselves and other animal species become susceptible hosts. For this reason, circulating narratives about the influence of human agency on ecological processes and patterns of disease emergence is incredibly important. Such stories have tremendous ability to galvanize human action and facilitate conversation regarding the responsibility of humans to mitigate new threats to human, animal, and environmental health. Furthermore, they crucially circumscribe environmental stewardship as an ethical and political project impacting multiple forms of life at a global scale. But these stories do not necessarily produce an adequate understanding of humans across the different and dynamic ecologies they are inextricable from. Nor do they portray the environment in its heterogeneous liveliness nor attribute to animals their properly nonhuman agencies. Unfortunately, these tropes do not tell us much at all about the pathogens either.

How could we begin to think about humans differently? What might a less anthropocentric framing of disease emergence look like?

One could begin by flipping the script and saying: for as much as humans disrupt ecosystems and impose their interests on other species, we are also always impinged upon by other forms of life, whether environmental, animal, or pathogenic. Perhaps we could think about these disease events less in terms of emergence and more in terms of immersion in a multiply-driven living milieu. That we are with other forms of life means that we exist in a universe that, in turn, imposes each form upon us, and in which all living beings are immersed (see Coccia 2019).

From this vantage point, can we conceive humans not as a species nor organism nor even as a discrete biological entity in itself, but rather as part of a wider biosocial ecosystem?

And could we thus figure the human-animal-environment interface, too, as a series of open-ended systems, in which humans and animals and environments each function among other systems, which each cannot control but through which each accesses its abilities and extends its capacities?

Perhaps it is easier to blame ourselves for changing the world than it is to cope with the disquieting reality that the emergence of infectious disease is a phenomena in which we are immersed. Indeed, it is dispiriting, even de-humanizing, to face these emergence events, to comprehend the degree to which they are capable of disrupting entire cultural, political, and psycho-social ecologies, including our expectations that control, normalcy, and some consistency comprise daily life. A virtue of disease emergence, and the threats they pose to human life, is that they force us to think about disruptions and instances of destabilization – moments when humans are jarred out from our immersion in reality’s continuity. These intervals, in which the interfaces that connect humans, animals, environments are ripped open by the transformations that contagion enacts, precipitate responsiveness. One vital question, then, regards what form our responsiveness ought to take.

Yes, humans change the world, but the world also changes humanness. It is in this sense that anthropocentrism can be a proper condition for anthropogenesis without being Anthropocenic. ­­­


[i] Note how the pathogen exceeds both nature and humanity in that, ontologically, it is accorded a status that is at once both and neither human nor nature.  The ontological assumption of human as more than a nature to which its actions are either indifferent or opposed, cannot account for the place of the pathogen in both natural and human affairs: for its biological kinship with humans and its sociological belonging with/to both human and non-human living environs.

[ii] As swiftly as it appeared, it may now be fading from the fads of the North American STS anthropology idioms: “Fuck the Anthropocene,” Donna Harraway blurted from the podium of her AAA address, honoring Aihwa Ong, in San Jose, in 2018.  Five years prior, Haraway had given the key note address at a conference held at UC-Santa Cruz on the topos of the Anthropocene.

Works Cited

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Coccia, E. (2019). The life of plants: a metaphysics of mixture. John Wiley & Sons.

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Melissa (Mel) Salm is a PhD candidate in the department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She is a recipient of the GloCal Health Fellowship sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fogarty International Center (FIC). She holds an MA in Critical and Creative Analysis from the Sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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