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MIT Better World

By Steve Nadis

According to Kate Brown, a professor in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society, zoonotic diseases— those initially transmitted from animals to humans, including Covid-19—can occur more frequently and strike more powerfully as a direct consequence of the stresses humans place on the environment.

Contributing to the current pandemic and to other infectious disease flare-ups in recent decades is the fact that animals and humans now live in increasingly close quarters, with human populations encroaching ever further into wildlife zones, Brown maintains. Modern industrial-scale agriculture is another culprit: tens of thousands of chickens, for example, can be raised within a single barn in just six weeks, an accelerated time frame that encourages pathogens to transform from sublethal residents into deadly invaders.

Although self-isolation is a key preventative strategy, the human body is not hermetically sealed, Brown points out. “We’re wading through an atmosphere filled with viruses and bacteria, antibiotic-resistant microbes and radioactive contaminants, and our bodies act like nets in the ocean, catching and filtering almost everything passing through.” Protecting ourselves when we are so porous is a huge challenge, compounded by the fact that we face a vast array of environmental toxins predominantly of anthropogenic origin, in addition to the threats posed by virulent biological agents.

Brown has catalogued many cases where human behavior has compromised the environment, thereby jeopardizing human health and welfare, in a series of award-winning books.

The first, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard University Press, 2004), describes a region along the Ukraine-Poland border chronically besieged by war, famine, and ethnic cleansing. She chose the first-person voice for this and her other books, which is unusual for historical works, in order to “bring readers along and help them visualize these places.”

In Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), Brown profiled two cities that were built around the world’s first nuclear plants to produce weapons-grade plutonium, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Ozersk, Russia. Over a period of decades, each plant unleashed some 350 million curies of radioactivity with devastating repercussions. Similar tales unfold in Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (University of Chicago Press, 2015), in which Brown explores “modernist wastelands” such as America’s biggest Superfund site, a former copper mine near Butte, Montana, despoiled by arsenic, heavy metals, and contaminated soil, and its counterpart, a ravaged mining town in Kazakhstan. Manual for Survival (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), meanwhile, takes a close look at the medical and environmental consequences of fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Long-lived radionuclides released in that accident are still circulating, with high levels of radiation emitted just this year during forest fires near the reactor complex.

One lesson emerging from Brown’s work is that natural and human-made disasters are now so closely entwined it can be hard to disentangle the two. Yet she sees some grounds for hope, albeit from an unlikely source. “The [coronavirus] pandemic is teaching us a great deal,” she says. “We’ve learned how to slow down, to communicate over the phone and internet rather than getting on a plane every other day. And people have shown they’re willing to make economic sacrifices to save lives.” Thanks to these changes, CO2 output has dropped, which means fewer people will die from air pollution and respiratory illnesses, Brown says.

“Economic projections suggest it won’t be easy to get back to where we were,” she adds. “Part of the reset, which I hope is now underway, should involve thinking about more sustainable, just, and equitable ways of resuming our economic activity.”

Brown’s current research, which explores a shift toward more energy-efficient and environmentally forgiving modes of farming, is aligned with that theme. While people today focus on the growth of financial indicators, she says, “we ignore the phenomenal growth around us—the ability of plants to create biomass, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and fill our soils with nutrients. That’s the kind of growth that’s really radical, and that’s the kind of growth we should be promoting.”

Steve Nadis is a 1997–98 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow.