Science, Society and Risk in the Anthropocene

Science, Society and Risk
in the Anthropocene
Nutan Maurya
The culture of too much
hygiene in rapid, unplanned
urbanising society with poor
infrastructure exposes urban
spaces to a particular risk
brought about by unchecked
use of technology. This article
looks at the indiscriminate use
of antibiotics and antibacterial
consumer products, which form
the aetiology for the emergence of
new strains of antibiotic resistant
bacteria (superbugs) in urban
space, especially in waterbodies.
Nutan Maurya ([email protected])
is a post-doctoral fellow with the Centre for
Environment and Development, Ashoka Trust
for Research in Ecology and the Environment,
n its report on antimicrobial resistance, published on 30 April 2014, the
World Health Organization (WHO)
has declared that bacterial resistance to
antibiotics is a major health issue threatening all regions of the world. The report emphasises preventing infections
from occurring with better hygiene and
by improving access to sanitation and
clean water (The Hindu 2014). The onus
of the risk of emergence of antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria has been located in inappropriate antibiotic drug usage. Very little attention has been paid
to the consumer products, which claim
to be “antibacterial” and to keep the environment 99.9% germ free.
In 1968, American marine biologist
and conservationist Rachel Carson
wrote The Silent Spring, a path-breaking
book on indiscriminate use of chemicals
in the US. It was for the first time that the
idea that if human beings were going to
adopt new technologies without assessing or evaluating the long-term impact of
their usage, then we as a race were staring
October 11, 2014
at disaster, was put forth. Technology
has already brought about irreversible
challenges to the quality of life of plants,
animals and human beings.
But nature finds its own way and
it has started fighting back against the
technology. For instance, rootworms
have modified their genetic programming to survive and continue to consume corn genetically modified to poison
them (The Times of India 2014). Strains
of bacteria, seemingly subdued by technology, have developed resistance to
antibiotic drugs, termed as superbugs.
Thus it can be inferred that the culturenature borderline is so entwined that
change in one creates a paradigm shift in
the other. As Donna Haraway, a prominent scholar in the field of science and
technology studies, puts it,
There is no border where evolution ends
and history begins, where genes stop and
environment takes up, where culture rules
and nature submits or vice-versa (Haraway
Industrialisation, urbanisation and
modernisation are key indicators of development. Science and technology have
been recognised as tools and engines of
socio-economic progress, growth and
development. Human changes to land,
water, and biosphere and to the climate
of the earth are so intensified and rapid
that it can be said that humans are
vol xlIX no 41
Economic & Political Weekly
central to the crisis of nature. However,
science, commerce and politics as key
institutions of modernity are no longer
assured the rationality and security with
which they were supposed to be deployed. Instead, in this changed scenario, they have portrayed themselves not
only as a contrivance of risk management but also as a cradle of “world risk
society” (Beck 1992, 1999).
To demarcate this new epoch in the
history of the earth, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene
Stoermer coined the term “anthropocene”. According to them, the invention of the steam engine in the 17th century was a major breakthrough in the
life of the planet. With the invention of
the steam engine, human aspiration
for progress flourished as a substantial
“geological and morphological force”
(Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich 2010).
The use of steam power led to factory
production, wide-ranging manufacturing of machine tools, large-scale use of
machinery, and a revolution in transportation. With a spate of new innovations,
technology managed to affect nearly
every aspect of human life. In this scenario, interaction with nature to fulfil
human needs gradually turned into control, transformation and exploitation of
nature to satisfy human greed. This
change leads humanity to an unforeseeable and risky world, in lieu of a more
certain and secure world.
Though bacterial resistance to common antibiotics has been a worldwide
concern, antimicrobial resistance has
been an especially major public health
problem in south-east Asian countries
(Bhatia and Narain 2010). In India, the
infectious disease burden is among the
highest in the world. Recent reports
showed that the inappropriate and irrational use of antimicrobial agents
against these diseases led to increase in
development of antimicrobial resistance
(Kumar et al 2013). The etiology of this
resistance has been recognised by WHO
(1996) in the relatively easy access to
and higher consumption of medicines,
which have increased the probability of
overuse of antibiotics.
In India, the problem has been observed
across three main classes of superbugs;
Economic & Political Weekly
October 11, 2014
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa,
bacteria of genus Acinetobacter and family Enterobacteriaceae. One recent addition in this series is the New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1(blaNDM-1) enzyme
which makes bacteria resistant to a
broad range of beta-lactam antibiotics –
eventually carbapenem antibiotics. In
2010, NDM-1 positive isolates and blaNDM-1
genes were detected in surface waters
across Delhi and have since been detected across the urban realm of the rivers
(Yong et al 2009). This NDM-1 was first
detected in a Klebsiella pneumoniae
isolated from a Swedish patient of Indian
origin (ICMR Status Report, 2011). The
most common bacteria that make this
enzyme are gram-negative, such as
Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, but the gene for NDM-1 can spread
from one strain of bacteria to another by
horizontal gene transfer. The latter is
transfer of genes among organisms of
the same generation, by means other
than reproduction (vertical transfer).
Thus, high rate of reproduction and the
aptness to pass genes among themselves, mean rapid growth of superbugs.
According to the Status Report 2011 of
Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership
(GARP) – India Working Group, use of antibiotics has increased gradually in recent
years. This report further added that between 2005 and 2009, sale of antibiotics
increased by 40% (GARP 2011).
Recent research by Ziaddin S Ahammad et al (2014) has shown that the
abundance of waterborne bla-resistance
gene is associated with the seasonal
human pilgrimages to the upper Ganga
River. The researchers have argued that
blaNDM-1 abundance was very low across
all sites in February in the upper Ganga
and the water quality was good. However, per capita blaNDM-1 levels were 20
times greater in June in the Ganga water
column, when compared to February.
The blaNDM-1 levels significantly correlated with the fecal coliform levels. They
argue that pilgrimage areas without adequate waste treatment are possible “hot
spots” for antibiotic resistant transmission. They suggest that waste treatment
must be improved to reduce broader
antibiotics resistant dissemination from
exposed returning pilgrims (Ahammad
et al 2014).
Review of Women’s Studies
April 26, 2014
Gender in Contemporary Kerala
– J Devika
Becoming Society: An Interview with Seleena Prakkanam
– J Devika
Struggling against Gendered Precarity in Kathikudam, Kerala
Attukal Pongala: Youth Clubs, Neighbourhood:
Performance of Religiosity
You Are Woman: Arguments with Normative
Femininities in Recent Malayalam Cinema
Shifting Paradigms:
Gender and Sexuality Debates in Kerala
Child Marriage in Late Travancore:
Religion, Modernity and Change
Home-Based Work and Issues of Gender and Space
– Parvathy Binoy
– Darshana Sreedhar
– Aneeta Rajendran
– Muraleedharan Tharayil
– Anna Lindberg
– Neethi P
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vol xlIX no 41
It is expected that India’s urban population will go up from 377 million in 2011
to 600 million by 2031. This is an increase of over 200 million in just 20
years. Such rapid urbanisation is posing
serious challenges to basic requirements
of water and sanitation, etc.
According to the Census 2011, only
70.6% of urban population is supplied by
piped water connections. About 13% of
the urban population defecates in the
open, open drains connect 37%, and
18% are not connected at all (COI 2011).
Infectious disease burden in India is
among the highest in the world, and
poor sanitation and malnutrition increase susceptibility to disease.
We are living in a second, reflexive age
of modernity or risk society (Beck 1992,
2006) defined as all pervasive of low
prospect-high consequence technological risks. Reflexive modernity or risk society can be defined as an understanding
of living in a society of increasing susceptibility to the unique, unintended, unknowable and unforeseen risks contrived
by modern science and technology. Beck
(2006) also consents to the fact that “risk
society” is not just the outcome of unpredictable, unprecedented effects of the
technology but it also epitomises the
consequences of political decisions to
strive for development and employ technologies to achieve reprehensible aims.
Against this backdrop, well-being has
predominantly become more about protection from risk. In recent years, there
has been increased awareness about the
harmfulness of using pesticides and
o­ther chemical fertilisers. More people
have started turning to organic food to
avoid chemicals and adulterants. On the
one hand, after understanding the impact of pesticides and other chemical
fertilisers on human health, emphasis
on use of organic food has been increasing, on the other, even a normal, natural
phenomenon like growing older is being
viewed as a risk by modern society. So
almost daily we have new ranges of
medicines and cosmetics being mar­
keted, claiming to delay ageing, if not to
fully stop it.
Germ-Free and Sparkle
However, germs have become the axiom
for a risk people want to jettison from
their milieu. This view has opened the
door for industrialists to cash in on this
fear and produce an array of products
designed to eradicate these germs. The
desire to keep the domestic arena free
from germs and bacteria and as clean
and sparkling as possible has accelerated
the use of antibacterial household products. This germ-free and sparkle, how­
ever, causes a lot of harm when this
chemical load enters our sewer system.
This has increased chemical load on the
sewage system. With inadequate treatment facilities, it has now led to s­evere
pollution of rivers.
However, the consumption pattern
has been believed to be significantly
shaping middle-class culture and identity. This is not only about safety, it also
reflects the longing of the middle classes to distinguish themselves from the
poorer classes. Susan Chaplin (1999) in
her p­aper says the availability of new
medical technologies, such as antibio­
tics, allows India’s wealthy to insulate
themselves from the effects of poverty
(in this case the threat of infection).
This has given rise to the culture of
heavy consumption of anti-bacterial
products, which claim to make the body
ultraclean and the surroundings, sanitised. Cities, towns and villages are
b­eing flooded with advertisements for
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sprays, lotions, soaps, cleansers, toothpastes, dishwashing detergents, and
many such products containing antibacterial agents. In response to these commercials, people are buying antibacterial products because they think
these products offer health protection.
The society, which wanted to be clean,
now wants to be super clean. Consumers are sold on 99.9% removal of ambient germs. So the aspiration to have a
100% germs-free environment has become an opportunity for the producers
of such products.
Most of the consumer liquid products
labelled as antibacterial comprise Triclosan. The chemical name of Triclosan
is 2, 4, 4 – Trichloro-2-hydroxydiphenyl
ether. Triclosan is a phenoxyphenol antimicrobial that is marketed as an “antibacterial” ingredient in consumer hygiene products, but it also has some antiviral and antifungal actions. It is bacteriostatic at low concentrations and bactericidal at high concentrations (Allison
et al 2007). In 1969, the US registered
Triclosan as a pesticide. For the next
20 years, it was common in medical
settings, but in the 1990s, addition of
Triclosan in consumer products rose
steeply. After the economic liberaliation
in 1991, Indian markets were also flooded
with such products.
According to researcher and physician
S B Levy (2001) “A Triclosan-resistant
mutant of E coli does not lyse easily in
the presence of Triclosan, making the
strain difficult to kill”. He cautioned that
bacteria might become immune to Triclosan (Levy 2001), which consequently,
may be etiology for cross-resistance to
antibiotics, and for the ingredients to become toxic to the environment and to
humans (Allison et al 2007).
Levy has reported that Peter Vikesl
and and his colleagues found that the
Triclosan antimicrobial agent used in
household dishwashing soaps reacts
with chlorinated water to produce unacceptably high levels of chloroform,
which is known to be a probable
human carcinogen. The research also
suggests that the reaction of Triclosan
with chlorine could be producing highly
chlorinated dioxins in the presence
of sunlight.
Economic & Political Weekly
October 11, 2014
Many scholars have perceived the risk in
the emergence of new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to inappropriate antibiotic drug usage. But the scientific world also needs to pay attention to
the dangers from consumer products,
claiming to be “antibacterial”. The desire
to have an extremely hygienic surrounding and “hospital-like” (Levy 2001)
cleanliness at home is only going to
add more and more chemicals to our
rivers. Our rivers are the ultimate destination for treated, semi-treated and
untreated sewage from our cities. In developing countries, unplanned urbanisation and indiscriminate use of antibacterial agents will lead not only to
grave health problems but also to serious environmental issues.
Rapid and unplanned urbanisation
coupled with heedless consumerism has
exposed our urban space and urban
water bodies to a particular risk brought
to us by unchecked use of science. I am
not arguing against the use of science.
But my argument is against such public
imagination where contributions of
science are only technologies – the things
that provide the mastery over nature
(Bernard 2006), instead of knowledge
and understanding of the natural process. It is high time we learned a lesson
or two from our previous experiences of
extensive use of chemicals in the form of
fertilisation during the green revolution
and the impact it had on the soil and
people of the region. The whole trajectory of development has shown that we
have not learned from our mistakes and
are bound to face the nastiest consequences of our mistakes. As George
Santayana (1980) wrote, “Those who
cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Ahammad, Z S, C L Hands, D W Graham,
Z S Ahammad, T R Sreekrishnan and
C W Knapp (2014): “Increased Waterborne
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the Upper Ganges River”, Environmental Science and Technology, 48.5: 3014-20.
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“Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or
Just Risky?”, Clinical Infectious Diseases,
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vol xlIX no 41
Beck, Ulrich (1992): Risk Society Towards a New
Modernity (London: Sage Publications).
– (1999): World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity
– (2006): “Living in the World Risk Society”,
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Kirksey, S E and Stefan Helmreich (2010): “The
Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography”, Cultural Anthropology, 25.4: 545-76.
Kumar, Ganesh S, G Roy, C Adithan, B N Harish, S
Sujatha and A Malini (2013): “Antimicrobial
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Santayana, George (1980): The Life of Reason: Vol 1:
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The Times of India (2014): “Worm Evolves to Eat
Corn That Was Genetically Engineered to Kill
It”, 19 March.
Yong, Dongeun, Toleman, A Mark, Giske, G Christian, Cho, S Hyun, Sundman, Kristina, Lee, Kyungwon and Walsh, R Timothy (2009): “Characterization of a New Metallo-B-Lactamase
Gene, BlaNDM-1, and a Novel Erythromycin
Esterase Gene Carried on a Unique Genetic
Structure in Klebsiella Pneumoniae Sequence
Type 14 from India”, American Society for
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on 19 February 2014.
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