When he wrote his great post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy did not give a precise description of the cataclysm that destroyed much of the life on Earth. He left the details to the imagination, fevered or sober, of his readers.
The discovery of genes associated with antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the high Arctic offers McCarthy’s readers, and the rest of humanity, an alternative to, say, self-inflicted nuclear destruction as the cause of our near destruction. That the genes were found in one of the most remote places on Earth shows the globalised nature of the resistance problem — one described by Britain’s health secretary as “a bigger threat than climate change or warfare”. That warning came after England’s chief medical officer warned antibiotic resistance threatens a global “apocalypse”.
Just as climate change does not recognise national borders, neither do superbugs, so an urgent global response is needed, one that will undoubtedly meet stiff resistance from food producers who depend on antibiotics
Improved sanitation in developing countries, and countries like this that still discharge raw waste into open water systems, is also urgently needed.
If our response to ever stronger superbugs is anything like our half-hearted, ineffective response to climate change, we won’t have to imagine McCarthy’s apocalypse for much longer, because we will experience it. Why are we still unable to respond sensibly and effectively to these great threats?