The case of antibiotic resistance — one of the new faces of our crisis of modernity
“The place of the worst barbarism is that modern forest that makes use of us, this forest of chimneys and bayonets, machines and weapons, of strange inanimate beasts that feed on human flesh.” ― Amadeo Bordiga
Modernity in crisis — a view from Edgar Morin
When the French thinker Edgar Morin declared that modernity was in crisis at the start of this century*, that was to express how the combination of technique, science, economy and capitalism, what he called the “four motors of the propelled spaceship Earth”, had failed in its mission of bringing progress to humanity. He explained that humans had fallen short of observing that each of these areas of supposed advancement presented an ambivalence, in other words a mixture of positive and negative outcomes.
Where technique has brought comfort in developed countries, it has also led to the dehumanisation of the workplace through the invention of the work chain. Where science has brought the progress of medicine, it has also created the nuclear bomb. The capitalist modes of production have engendered an economic development on some fronts, but they have also unleashed the forces of neoliberalism which have propelled competition as the new prominent norm in every aspect of life, reinforcing economic inequalities and a sense of despair at the individual level.
As the core reason for this failure of reflecting on modernity, Morin identifies a tradition in Western thinking that was largely infused by the work of the French philosopher René Descartes and then reinforced with the ideals of the Enlightenment. This tradition separates knowledge into two distinct areas. On one side humans have put aside science, reason and empirical testing of reality. On the other side, they have gathered philosophy, moral, and all the disciplines that relate to us as subjects.
On the basis of this tradition lies the belief that pure science can provide an objective view of the world, away from religious superstition and ideology. Science appeared during Descartes’ era as the utmost neutrality, a form of universal framework that enabled to understand and manage the world and that would inevitably lead humans to progress, whatever their diversity of cultural values.
This promise of progress through the use of reason and science has nurtured a form of thinking empty of any ethical considerations — what some thinkers at the start of the twentieth century have called instrumental rationality. This one has been, since then, “robbing the world of meaning and purpose”**. These thinkers affiliated to critical theory saw instrumental rationality less like a factor of development and progress than like one of the leading cause for the barbarity of the various forms of totalitarianism that they witnessed in Europe. They accused it of the atrocity of modern war techniques and their expression in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Edgar Morin situates himself in the legacy of these thinkers in the sense that he reflects on how blind reason and profit-seeking have dehumanised the world we live in by marginalising our affects and values, in other words our subjectivity.
The case of antibiotic resistance
Ten years later, Morin’s thoughts continue to offer some compelling arguments. As we stand, our world is still engulfed in a crisis of modernity, now more than ever — stuck in a post-modern era as some have argued.
Climate change is the obvious example. Profit-seeking that lies at the core of the capitalist model has led the modern era to high consumption of fossil fuel, intensive farming and massive land usage without much consideration for the societal and ecological costs of these practices — up to recently. Technique and science contributed their lot by providing the machines and scientific knowledge that made these developments possible. The “four motors of the propelled spaceship Earth” have once again demonstrated their ambiguity, leading to a double-edged form of progress that leaves us with a kind of bittersweet taste.
Recent years have seen another issue come to the fore that falls perfectly within this scope but which was nevertheless less discussed than climate change — the increasing resistance of some animals and people to antibiotics. A recent article from Foreign Policy quoted a study by a British government task force which estimated that 700,000 deaths per year resulted from antibiotic resistance worldwide, and this figure could rise to 10mio by 2050. The Guardian on its side just quoted the discovery of a bacteria resistant to a kind of antibiotic called Colistin and found in pigs and humans in England and Wales.
It is increasingly recognised that this resistance is in large part due to antibiotics intensive use in agricultural industries — antibiotics are fed to animals parked indoor by the thousands for them to grow quicker or not to fall sick. The impact on public health of the large amounts of antibiotics used in agribusiness is not particularly new, at least at the policy-making level. The European Union did sign a ban on the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006 as it was worried about public health issues. However, antibiotics are still permitted in animal feed for veterinary purposes. As a result, in the UK almost half the total use of antibiotics is going into farming.
Now policy makers are starting to feel the heat again as the threat to global public health becomes tangible. The World Health Organisation has finally held its first World Antibiotic Awareness Week in November. While the organisation recognised that “the use of immense quantities of antimicrobials in food production […] has public health consequences”, the various guidelines proposed on their website seem to fall short of offering appropriate recommendations to countries in their national policies towards antibiotics use in farming.
Needless to say that antibiotics are essential to our well-being, from treating infections to performing surgery. Discovered in 1928 by the Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming, they represented a stepping stone in the advancement of science. Since then they have saved millions of lives — but they have also allowed for intensive farming to develop. The regulations in place in most countries are clearly not tight enough to cut back antibiotics use and to go against the forces of the market. The farming industry’s race to profit makes it largely inclined to use these products, whatever the human costs. Antibiotics use is just another example of a ‘progress’ of modernity that is showing more ambivalence than planned.
Morin’s epistemological challenge — a humanist call to navigate the crisis
Edgar Morin’s work provides an essential guide to navigate the crisis of modernity we’re engulfed in. Arguing that our world is defined by a level of complexity that increases as globalisation unfolds, making issues often multidimensional and interlinked, Morin inclines us to embrace the rational as much as the irrational of this world. He encourages us to recognise the positive side of technical and scientific progress as much as the share of darkness that lies in it.
For this, Morin offers to rethink the way we approach science and technique — notably by bringing back humans at the centre and giving primacy to ethics. He raises an epistemological challenge — in other words, a change in the way we get to know the world and reflect on things. Profit, competition and scientific models should not be the sole drivers of human decisions, nor should any conception of progress be delinked to what makes us all humans: our affects and values.
It is too easy for scientists to exonerate themselves from the misuse of their innovations on the pretext that science is neutral. It is not. Even science is at the mercy of subjectivity. It is inherently a social process that defines what scientific issues are important or not, and where to drive innovation through funding for research. It is a human selection that determines what factors to observe and which ones to dismiss in a science such as economics. Economic growth, interest rates, unemployment figures and inflation are essential data if one wants to understand the health of an economy, but they cannot explain it all. Some observers will focus on these; others will include measures of inequalities by class while sociologists will argue that social exclusion is far more important. Science is reductionist, it is an abstraction, and this process of abstraction is human-led. Neutrality and objectivity in scientific methods are therefore an illusion that it is time to de-glorify.
It is also far too easy for policy-makers to pretend that market forces and competition are here to adjust the way science and technique are treated. As an obvious example, deciding or not to use genetic engineering should not be left to market forces and to the sole logic of profit.
Let’s be clear. Science and technique are essential components of human development. Without the genius of some pugnacious scientists, our lives would be far more laborious and precarious, in a constant mode of survival. However, if by development we hear a form of human progress which finality is to improve social conditions and to bring dignity for all, science and technique cannot be the sole drivers of it. Science will never answer the question: how should we live? *** The responsibility of this question ultimately lies in us, in every decision of our meaningful lives.
* E. Morin, 2007 : Vers l’abîme, L’Herne
** S.E. Bronner, 2001: Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford
*** A.A Abdelmalek, 2004: « Edgar Morin, sociologue et théoricien de la complexité :. des cultures nationales à la civilisation européenne », Sociétés 2004/4 (no 86), p. 99–117.