The consumption variant that threatens us all

One of my family’s claims to fame is that the famous author George Orwell spent time in the same sanatorium and hospital in Scotland as my grandfather, who had been left a paraplegic by a mining accident in April 1943. Orwell stayed at Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, Scotland, from Christmas eve 1946 until July 1947.

The photo above this article shows the author (standing at the back) with my grandfather (sitting in the wheelchair on the right of the picture) and another man. Orwell died in London in 1950 at the age of 46. My grandfather died in the hospital in March 1961 at the age of 48. He had spent nearly 18 years of his life there.

In addition to his fame as a writer, Orwell was also a high profile victim of tuberculosis. The disease, popularly known as consumption, is the biggest killer in history. According to some estimates, as many as a billion people may have been killed by consumption over the past two hundred years. It’s still wreaking havoc, killing between 1.5 million and 2 million people a year.

There’s a romance attached to consumption, perhaps because people like John Keats, Emily Brontë, Chopin, Franz Kafka and Chekhov all died from it. As author VL McBeath notes in an article on consumption, it was “so prevalent in the 19th century that it played a large role in literature, art and opera. It became romanticised in society by poets such as Keats, Shelley and Byron. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Brontë also romanticised the disease. Ironically, many of these names ultimately succumbed to the disease themselves.”

Deaths were portrayed as romantic, despite being anything but. Consumptive patients “often took on a thin, pale, melancholy appearance that some found attractive”. She quotes an exchange between Byron and his friend Lord Sligo when the poet remarked he would like to die of consumption because “all the women would say ‘See that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying’.”

When Edgar Allen Poe’s wife was dying of consumption, he described her as “delicately, morbidly angelic”.

Today, we are just as uncritically enthralled to a new form of consumption, one which is contributing to the draining of our planet’s life-force while we stand around entranced and distracted by the symptoms that contribute to its destruction.

This form of consumption is also romanticised and idealised but it’s just as deadly. It eats the planet – and us – from the inside. Minerals, materials and resources are stripped and torn from the earth and used to power all manner of activities, to manufacture so many of our devices and gadgets and to provide space for environmentally unfriendly industrial-scale agriculture. The cost of this destruction is reflected in the decay of our planet.

But it’s not just internal. Like a consumptive, the earth’s malaise manifests itself in raised temperatures, a fever of flooding and storms, chills and torpor.

There is nothing glamorous or romantic about this but sadly our insatiable urge to consume blinds us to the damage it perpetrates upon this planet, our home. Our attention is fixed on a new phone, a car, a TV or a cheap steak without any deeper reflection on what the consequences are likely to be for the earth that provides the materials, resources and space we need to create those things.

We have infected the world with the virus of consumption and are doing too little to try and find a cure. Why? Because we created the virus. It is part of us. To fix the planet would require us to fix ourselves. Too many people are bewitched by consumption.

We people and the earth we live on exist in two competing realities. Our world of consumption extracts coal, oil, gas and minerals from underground or under the sea and we give back waste and poison to the earth. We have extracted resources from places underground where they have lain safely dormant for millennia to release destructive gases into the world around us that we walk on today.

Still we struggle to grasp this reality, searching instead for new ways to continue our consumption in more "environmentally friendly" ways.

Only a small number of people are willing to say that something needs to be done. But while they might prescribe the cure, they do not have the power to administer it. Those that have the power to do something are too enraptured by the symptoms of consumption to see that it is killing the patient.

Those who romanticised the lingering death of consumptives knew they were dying – and they knew what was killing them. Most of us instinctively know the earth is in danger. There is a cure but it would require significant changes to our consumptive lifestyle. That’s something not enough people are prepared to sacrifice yet. Instead, we’re engaged in a search for magical solutions that will somehow avert climate catastrophe while allowing consumption to continue unchecked.

Consumption is the biggest killer disease in history. We should be doing everything we can to make sure that the newer modern variant that powers so much of our world does not end up killing even more of us.