How to predict a pandemic: By meditating on disasters and how we see them

Megan Marz

THE WASHINGTON POST – In an essay published in 2018, Elisa Gabbert wrote somewhat presciently, “Many experts think the most likely culprit of a future pandemic is some version of the flu.” The reason being that flus are “common, highly contagious, and especially dangerous when there’s a new strain to which people have limited immunity.”

This prediction appears in The Great Mortality, one of 10 previously published pieces that appear alongside two new ones, plus an epilogue, in Gabbert’s second essay collection, The Unreality of Memory. Gabbert is not a scientist or a science journalist.

She’s a writer with a day job in marketing and a parallel career as a poet and essayist. How did she so clearly see what was coming for us? One answer is that she has read and thought a lot about disaster and human perception, the themes that tie her essays together. Another is that she’s good at finding angles readers might not otherwise see. Like a restless photographer, she’ll stretch herself to find another and then another shot. She’ll zoom way in and way out.

The essay Big and Slow is an example of the latter. It gets at the terror of global warming not by telling “arresting stories” – a strategy recommended by a scholar Gabbert quotes – but by depicting the problem’s un-depictability. Climate change is so “massively distributed in time and space,” Gabbert writes, citing the philosopher Timothy Morton, that it “can’t be captured in a photograph or even an abstraction.”

It is “happening everywhere all the time.” To perceive it at all, we have to artificially shrink it or pause it. Consider time-lapse GIFs of melting ice, whose “extreme compression only minimises the impact of what’s happening at actual size.” Gabbert’s descriptions of the human failure to grasp climate change in all its dimensions end up being a far better aid to apprehending it.

They are not, however, likely to rouse anyone to action. Big and Slow is typical of Gabbert’s disaster essays in that its bent is deterministic. “Don’t be upset when a teacup breaks, because its breaking was inevitable,” she writes, invoking a Buddhist philosophy.

“Is the world already broken?” If it’s not, The Great Mortality suggests, we might have other inexorable catastrophes to thank. “A pandemic, an asteroid, or a nuclear war could all lead to global cooling,” Gabbert observes. “When you look at it that way, it’s almost as though we are acting with a higher collective intelligence – a hive mind, employing folly as a strategy.”

Another essay offers a similar explanation of catastrophic technological failures like the Titanic and the Challenger. Such disasters, Gabbert fears, are the unavoidable outcome of collective progress. Humanity, in these framings, becomes an object of detached awe and curiosity that resemble what you might feel during a nature documentary.

Despite her drone’s-eye perspective, Gabbert remains a human being concerned with human suffering. She often describes her horror at death and destruction, and her rage against what she sees as evil. But these moral instincts do not usually translate into well-defined moral positions. (After quoting her, I keep finding upon reflection that I need to delete “she argues” and replace it with something else.)

Her essays are not argumentative or even narrative as much as they are accretive, example after example building on a given theme: nuclear disaster, the threat of tsunamis and earthquakes, the nature of pain, the difficulty of seeing oneself as one is. The technique effectively conveys each topic’s “sheer sheerness,” to borrow Gabbert’s gloss on skyscrapers’ sublimity. Like massive buildings, her subjects are hard to fit in a single frame; she circles them, finding all the vantages she can.

Gabbert reckons in her final three essays with the gaps in these perspectives. Watching the horrors of Donald Trump’s presidency unfold, and reflecting on the fact that there is more evil in the world than she could ever bear witness to, she attempts to draw conclusions about people’s collective and individual moral responsibilities. As she acknowledges, she never quite succeeds. In the end, the aesthetic tools she otherwise wields so brilliantly – that sky-high view, that inward-looking zoom – are not well-suited for showing us how we should live with one another. But then, literature is often better at showing us how we actually do.