A growing number of medical conditions are becoming harder to treat, including pneumonia and tuberculosis. The bacteria that cause these diseases have developed a resistance to the antibiotics that we usually prescribe to deal with them.
This is a problem we’re all going to be hearing more about in the coming years, because it’s a big one. The World Health Organisation says that “antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”
Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness because we are overusing them. They are routinely prescribed ‘just in case’, or for minor infections. We feed them to animals to accelerate their growth. And every time we use the bacterial carpet-bombing of antiobiotics, the few that are resistant are given room to grow.
I had this pegged as a medical issue and beyond the themes of this blog, so I haven’t written about it before. But I recently read I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong’s book on bacteria, and something occurred to me: antibiotic resistance is a consumerism problem.
First of all, it’s often about wants rather than needs. Part of the problem is that when people go to the doctor, they often want antibiotics. They feel that they’re getting the good stuff. Of course, everyone should have them when they need them, but that’s not as often as we might think. The infection could clear up on its own, or it may not even be a bacterial infection. But we know that antibiotics are good for a clearout and we ask for them. The National Health Service actually ran a TV campaign last year asking patients to stop pestering their doctors for antibiotics.
There are issues in the medical profession and in agriculture that need to be resolved, but there are also millions of personal choices involved. We reap collectively what we sowed as individuals, each making choices for ourselves without understanding what they mean when aggregated. This is a familiar dynamic in 21st century consumer societies. We all have a right to fly or drive a car, but we wouldn’t choose climate change. We might be outraged at ocean plastic, but keep on buying coffees to go. We all want cheap clothes, even though we know that low prices means abuse somewhere down the supply chain. Personal choices add up to collective disaster.
Like a safe climate, like fertile soil or stable fish stocks, antibiotics are something that we are failing to steward. We are overusing them, and that is eroding their usefulness. Future generations may be deprived of them. Out of the many tangled and intertwining strands of consumerism, antiobiotic resistance may turn out to be the most dangerous of them all.