Health officials, both in the United States and internationally, have rightfully noted that the irrational fear associated with the Ebola crisis in Africa is more dangerous than the disease itself. Fear causes people to do all sorts of crazy things. Fear makes people pick up guns and shoot other people. Fear makes people lock doors and keep lights on all night long, illuminating empty buildings and wasting resources. Fear makes people horde and steal and overlook reality. Fear makes people believe fear mongers. Fear loves hysteria and feeds on the suspension of rational thought. Fear makes us sick.
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. You haven’t seen the word biophobia in the headlines and it’s likely it may take a while for my coinage to catch on. Though not a mainstream media buzzword, biophobia is 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 life is irrational, self-destructive and foolish.
In fact, humans even kill things that don’t threaten us: squashing bugs for no reason, shooting majestic animals because we can, spraying a “weed” because we’ve been told we should.
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.
Just look at our obsession of killing 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 life forms 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.
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.
Think about it. Using that 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 there. 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 and again during her shift. And so are shoppers who use it. Nice try, folks.
Meanwhile, 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.
“Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening.” — Gertrude Stein. 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 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. Woe to any creature who strays from its allowed domain and gets lost in our kitchen. Smashed like a bug, he is. 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 we come across is futile and unnecessary and a 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. And still we recall tons of meat every year. Apparently what we are doing is not succeeding.
Biophobia is fear of life. Killing living things is not going to solve that fear, only make us more afraid. Start the cure by making peace with a few bacteria.