The army base, a cut of cleared land amidst a thick, verdant, unnamed jungle, is filled with soldiers and locals, dead or dying of a mystery disease. A pile of bodies burns outside. At the sound of a U.S. army plane approaching, Americans and Africans both run out of the medical tents, arms raised to the sky in welcome and anticipation. But one man’s smile turns to horror when he realizes the airdropped package isn’t relief in the form of a cure or supplies, but instead another kind of solution. The bomb explodes, killing the men and devastating their arboreal surroundings; out of the wreckage run two white-headed capuchin monkeys.
This is the opening scene—ground zero—in the 1995 film Outbreak, in which an Ebola-like virus ultimately lands on U.S. soil and becomes an unstoppable killer. In the film, the virus is connected directly to the deforestation of the land enacted by western military: a local health care worker tells a U.S. army virologist, played by Dustin Hoffman, that the local “juju man” believes “the gods were awoken by their sleep by the man cutting down the trees where no man should be, and the gods got angry; this is their punishment.”
In 2011, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion looked anew at the same issues of global infection, and here too, the filmmakers came to the same conclusion: the source of the killer virus is (spoiler alert) also industrial deforestation. In the 21st century edition, a multinational bulldozes a grove of palm trees in China for some unnamed purpose, destroying the nest of some local bats. Those bats end up flying over a pig farm, dropping a piece of infected fruit into the pen. The pig eats the fruit, the humans eat the pig, and the next thing you know, the contagion is spreading.
These, and other, pop culture characterization of Ebola-like viruses place the blame for the spread of the disease squarely on the shoulders of globalization and man’s careless despoiling of the environment. It’s not just Hollywood that believe that we are the cause of our own potential demise.