John Green reviews the opening scene of the movie Penguins of Madagascar and the smallpox vaccine. The Anthropocene Reviewed book will be released on May 18, 2021 and is available for preorder now. Tour details in show notes!
Preorder The Anthropocene Reviewed book, out May 18, 2021: https://sites.prh.com/anthropocenereviewedbook
Join John Green and special guests on the The Anthropocene Reviewed virtual book tour! Each ticket purchased will grant access to the respective live event and include a signed copy of The Anthropocene Reviewed. Ticket links and more information at http://www.johngreenbooks.com/appearances.
Monday, May 17th at 4:30 PM PT / 7:30 PM ET
Northeast Event in partnership with The Wilbur Theatre
With special guest Clint Smith
Tuesday May 18th at 7:00 PM PT / 10:00 PM ET
With special guest Sarah Green
Wednesday, May 19th at 4:00 PM PT / 7:00 PM ET
With special guest Hank Green
Saturday, May 22nd at 1:00 PM CT / 2:00 PM ET
With special guest Ashley C. Ford
For every ticket purchased, $2 will be donated to Partners In Health. $1 is included in the ticket price, and my publisher Dutton will match every $1.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.
I’m John Green, and we’re back with a four-episode mini season to celebrate the release of The Anthropocene Reviewed book, which comes out on May 18th. The book contains many revised and expanded essays from this podcast, and several all-new reviews, and also I signed all 250,000 copies of the U.S. and Canadian first printing of the book. So if you live in the U.S. or Canada, and you want an unsigned copy of the book, too bad. But if you want an autographed one, they are available wherever books are sold. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the book is also available for pre-order, although alas, I cannot guarantee you will get a signed copy.
At any rate, today we’ll be reviewing two things much on my mind lately--the opening scene of the movie Penguins of Madagascar and the smallpox vaccine.
Let’s begin with Penguins of Madagascar.
Unless you’ve lived an exceptionally fortunate life, you’ve probably known someone who enjoys having provocative opinions. I am referring to people who say things to you like, “You know, Ringo is the best Beatle.”
In response, you’ll take a long breath. Maybe you’re out to lunch with this person, because lunch is a time-limited experience, and you can only bear this person’s presence in minute quantities. So you’ll take a bite of your food. And then you’ll sigh again before saying, “Why is Ringo the best Beatle?”
Well, the Provocative Opinion Person is very glad you asked. “Ringo is the best Beatle because…” And then you stop listening, which is the only way to get through lunch. When the person has finished at last you say, “Okay, but Ringo also wrote ‘Octopus’s Garden,’” and then the Provocative Opinion Person will regale you with a fourteen-minute lecture that begins, “Well, actually, ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is a considerable work of genius because…”
Very few of us are Provocative Opinion People, thank God, but I think many of us do harbor at least one provocative opinion, and this is mine: I believe the opening sequence of the film Penguins of Madagascar is one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.
Penguins of Madagascar is an animated kids’ movie about the Anthropocene: A villainous octopus named Dave has invented a special ray that makes cute animals ugly, so that humans will stop privileging the protection of adorable animals (like penguins) over less adorable ones (like Dave).
The movie begins as a faux nature documentary. “Antarctica, an inhospitable wasteland,” the famous documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog intones with his trademark gravitas. But even here, he tells us, “We find life. And not just any life. PENGUINS. Joyous, frolicking, waddling, cute and cuddly life.”
A long line of penguins, marches mindlessly behind an unseen leader. As Herzog calls penguins “silly little snow clowns,” we follow the line back to the three young penguins at the center of the movie, one of whom announces, “Does anyone even know where we’re marching to?”
“Who cares?” an adult penguin responds.
“I question nothing,” another adds.
Soon thereafter, the three young penguins are bowled over by an egg rolling downhill. They decide to follow the egg, which tumbles over the edge of a glacier to a shipwrecked boat below. These three little penguins now stand on the edge of a vast cliff, looking down at an egg that is about to be eaten by a leopard seal. The penguins must decide: Risk it all to save this egg, or watch as it gets eaten?
At this point, the camera zooms out, and we see the documentary crew following the penguins. “Tiny and helpless,” Herzog says, “the babies are frozen with fear. They know if they fall from this cliff, they will surely die.” And then there is a moment’s pause before Herzog says, “Günter, give them a shove.”
The sound guy uses a boom mic to whack the penguins from behind, forcing them into the great unknown. It’s a kids’ movie, so of course the penguins survive and go on great adventures. But every time I watch Penguins of Madagascar, I think of how humans and penguins rarely interact in the wild, and yet we are nonetheless their greatest threat—and also their best hope. In that respect, we are a kind of god—and not a particularly benevolent one.
I also find myself thinking about the lemming, a six-inch rodent with pert eyes and a brown-black coat of fur. There are many species of lemmings, and they can be found throughout the colder parts of North America and Eurasia. Most like to be near water, and they can swim a fair distance.
Lemmings tend to have an especially extreme population cycle: Every three or four years, their populations explode due to favorable breeding conditions. In the seventeenth century, some naturalists hypothesized that lemmings must spontaneously generate and then fall from the sky in their millions like raindrops. That belief fell away over time, but another did not. We have long believed that, driven by instinct and/or a willingness to mindlessly follow other lemmings, the creatures self-correct for population growth via mass suicide.
This myth has proven astonishingly durable, even though biologists have known for a long time that lemmings do no such thing. In fact, lemmings spread out when populations become too large, seeking new and safe spaces. Sometimes, they come to a river or lake and attempt to cross it. Sometimes, they drown. Sometimes, they die of other causes. In all these respects, they are quite similar to many other rodents.
But even now, we still sometimes say that people who unquestioningly follow are “lemmings.” We think of lemmings this way in no small part because of the 1958 Disney movie White Wilderness, a nature documentary about the North American arctic. In the film, we watch lemmings migrating after a season of population growth. At last, they come to an oceanside cliff, which the narrator refers to as “the final precipice.”
“Casting themselves bodily out into space,” the narrator tells us, the lemmings hurl themselves over the cliff in their immense stupidity, and those that survive the fall then swim out into the ocean until they drown, “a final rendezvous with destiny, and with death.”
But none of that is a realistic depiction of lemmings’ natural behavior. For one thing, the subspecies of lemming depicted in the film do not typically migrate at all. Also, this section of the movie wasn’t even filmed in the wild; the lemmings in question were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, where much of the lemming footage was shot. And the lemmings did not hurl themselves bodily out into space. Instead, the filmmakers backed a truckful of lemmings up to the edge of the cliff, and then dumped the lemmings over the cliff, filming them as they fell, and then eventually drowned.
Günter, give them a shove.
In the end, White Wilderness is a documentary not about lemmings but about the lengths humans will go to in order to hold on to a lie.
I love the opening sequence of Penguins of Madagascar because it reminds us that humans are never neutral observers in the Anthropocene. But I also love it because it captures, and makes the gentlest possible fun of, something about myself I find deeply troubling. Like the adult penguin who stays in line and announces, “I question nothing,” I mostly follow rules. I mostly try to act like everyone else is acting, even as we all approach the precipice. We imagine animals as being without consciousness, mindlessly following their evolutionary imperatives to they-know-not-where, but in that construction, we sometimes forget that we are also animals.
I am thoughtful—full of thoughts, all the time, inescapably, exhaustingly. But I am also mindless—acting in accordance with default settings I neither understand nor examine. I am part of a species that runs so fast it sometimes doesn’t see the cliff coming before it’s too late. I am part of a species that wanders in search of safety and abundance. To a degree I don’t want to accept, I am a lemming. The lemming myth doesn’t last because it helps us to understand lemmings. It lasts because it helps us to understand ourselves.
Penguins of Madagascar is an exceptionally silly movie. But how else can we confront the absurdities of the Anthropocene? So I stand by my Provocative Opinion, and give the opening sequence of Penguins of Madagascar four and a half stars.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the smallpox vaccine. But first…
My dreams about the shot began in January of 2021. In my dreamscape, I’m home, of course. Even in my dreams, I don’t leave home much these days. Sarah appears, and tells me that we’re getting the shot. When? Now.
The dream then turns to preparation. It’s cold, but I don’t want to wear a long-sleeve shirt. I want them to have easy access to my upper-arm. So I pull on a t-shirt, and then a winter coat over it. I grab a mask. Now we’re looking for the keys. Now, we’re on the road, and now, we’re in a packed waiting room. Someone calls Sarah’s name, then mine. We follow a masked nurse into an exam room. She asks who wants to go first and Sarah volunteers. Sarah is crying as the syringe goes in. I think, Sarah never cries. This is such a big moment. I think, what a year. The nurse turns toward me. I roll up my t-shirt sleeve. I dressed for this, I tell her. I see the syringe. I watch it go into my arm.
The historian Frank Snowden has said that smallpox was the “most dreaded disease” of the 18th century. It was terribly painful--fluid-filled pustules often covered most of an infected person’s skin, and as these wounds scabbed over, all movement became horrifically painful. Around 30% of infections proved fatal in Europe, and those who survived were sometimes blinded for life. Thomas Macaulay called it “the most terrible of all the ministers of death … filling the churchyards with corpses, tormenting with constant fears all whom it had not yet stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power.”
Smallpox was especially devastating in the Americas, where Native American communities had never been exposed to the disease before Europeans arrived at the end of the 15th century. As Snowden put it, this “catastrophe for the Native American population” happened “largely spontaneously, but there were also intentional acts of genocide.” One such intentional act is described in Elizabeth Fenn’s book Pox Americana, when a chronicler writes of Europeans giving a group of Ottawa people, “two blankets and [a] handkerchief out of the Small Pox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” The English general Thomas Gage had approved government reimbursement for “sundries to convey the smallpox to the Indians.” Along with other Afroeurasian diseases like measles and typhoid, smallpox contributed to what is now known as The Great Dying--populations of indigenous Americans declined by perhaps 90% between 1500 and 1650.
Just to state the obvious, Covid-19 is not smallpox. Smallpox was vastly deadlier, for one thing, and outside of the Americas, smallpox was not a novel disease like Covid-19 is. But I don’t know that we would have vaccines for Covid-19 if we had not developed them for smallpox.
My vaccine dream proved partly prophetic: It really did begin with Sarah appearing in our room one afternoon. A waitlist had just called her and they had two shots for us. I put on a short-sleeve shirt, just like I dreamt, and we raced to the car, giddy and trepidatious. But when the shots finally came, neither of us cried, which was a real surprise, because especially these days, I am usually crying. I cry when I read that after his son died of smallpox, Ethan Allen remembered his boy as “the darling of my soul.” I cry when I see Liverpool playing in an empty stadium, and when watching TikTok videos, and when folding the laundry, and when listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 14. I cry in frustration and fatigue and sadness and hope. But when getting the shot, I did not cry. I had imagined this moment so many times over the previous fourteen months. It would be momentous. Life-changing.
But in the end, it was none of that. It was a shot. I’ve had a lot of shots over the years, and this one felt like all the others. I was happy, and relieved, but my life hadn’t fundamentally changed. I received the Moderna vaccine, so I wouldn’t be fully vaccinated until two weeks after getting a second dose.
But also, as we drove home after the shot, I was starting to realize that immunity is not primarily a personal experience, but a collective one. What I really want is not to be personally immune from Covid-19; I want to be able to share spaces without risking spreading the disease or overwhelming the healthcare system or harming the vulnerable. I want to visit with friends, to be together. In her brilliant book On Immunity, Eula Biss writes, “Immunity is a public space.” And God, do I miss public spaces.
In parts of Africa and Asia, there was for centuries a strategy for mitigating smallpox now known as variolation. In China, people inhaled dried smallpox scabs in order to induce a mild version of the disease, and thereafter lifelong immunity. In parts of sub-saharan Africa, material from smallpox pustules was introduced to cuts on the arm. Cotton Mather, of Salem witch trials fame, is often credited for introducing smallpox variolation to North America, but he learned the technique from an enslaved man named Onesimus. When Mather asked if he’d had smallpox, Onesimus answered, “Yes and no,” and then explained--as Mather put it--”that he had undergone an operation which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it. … He described the operation to me and showed me in his arm the scar.”
In the early 18th century, the English writer Mary Wortley Montagu lived for a time in Turkey, where she witnessed similar variolation procedures. Writing from Istanbul, she told a friend, “The smallpox, so fatal and general among us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting.”
By 1776, Hannah Winthrop--a supporter of American independence--wrote that in Britain’s American colonies, variolation had become “as modish as running away from the troops of a barbarous George was the last year.”
But there were many shortcomings of variolation. The technique still sometimes resulted in death, perhaps in two percent of cases. And also, it did give people smallpox, which meant that during their variolation, people could spread smallpox. In Europe and North America, the procedure, as Fenn writes, “remained too expensive and too time-consuming for common folk to afford. Immunity thus tended to concentrate in the upper classes.” For the poor and marginalized, smallpox was now a greater risk, because it could be spread to them via those undergoing variolation.
In early spring of 2020, just as the pandemic began to gather force in the U.S., my parents moved next door to us, but we’ve rarely seen them. Over the summer, we shared some outdoor, distanced meals, but mostly we’ve been separated. I often think about the last time I hugged my mom and dad--in November of 2019.
This whole year, my parents have been right there, next door, but also worlds away. I know how fortunate I am even to see my parents, just to have them here with me. Over a million Americans have lost one or both of their parents to Covid, and so far I have been among the lucky and privileged. So far. Maybe this is one reason I find that I can’t cry after getting the first dose of the vaccine--I’m scared to feel relief, because I don’t yet know if relief is warranted.
So here’s how I always heard the story of the world’s first vaccine: In 1796, a brilliant young doctor named Edward Jenner noticed that young women who milked cows for a living seemed to be immune to smallpox. Jenner also observed that milkmaids were routinely infected with a relatively mild disease, called cowpox.
Having made this discovery, Jenner borrowed the eight-year-old son of his gardener, made two cuts in the boy’s arm, and then put some pus from a cowpox pustule into the wound. The boy got a fever but recovered, and was thereafter immune to smallpox. Word of this wonder spread, and suddenly one of the world’s deadliest diseases was completely preventable.
This story isn’t untrue, exactly, but like a lot of historical narratives, it deceives via distillation. For one thing, Jenner did not discover that milkmaids were immune to smallpox. Many people knew this, including milkmaids, for whom not dying of smallpox was one of the chief perks of the job. Jenner also wasn’t the first person to use cowpox as a protection against smallpox: as Saheli Sadanand has written, “In 1774, Benjamin Jesty, an English farmer … inoculated his wife and two sons using pustule material from cowpox-infected cows.” Jesty’s experiment was a success, but he did not widely share the results. Jenner did--despite being rebuffed by the Royal Society, he self-published his findings and loudly preached the good news of what came to be known as vaccination. Just as the word “variolation” is derived from Variola, the Latin name for smallpox, the word “vaccination” comes from Vacca, the Latin word for cow. This cow-en-nation made it possible for people to become immune to smallpox without suffering--or spreading--the illness, and within a few years, vaccination became widespread in Europe. By 1806, future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson would write to Jenner, “Future generations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox existed and by you has been extirpated.”
But that extirpating proved complicated, because discovery is nothing without distribution. Long after smallpox vaccination became safe and effective and widely available in rich communities, the disease continued to kill. Thomas Jefferson wrote that letter to Edward Jenner in 1806 and in the twentieth century, over 300,000,000 people died of smallpox. Three hundred million.
What finally ended the scourge wasn’t one person inventing a vaccine, but billions of people working together to fund and produce and distribute vaccines.
Beginning in 1959, the World Health Organization passed a resolution to end smallpox, but the movement didn’t gain funding and momentum until 1967. Once smallpox eradication became a global priority, it happened stunningly fast: The last case of smallpox contracted in the wild occurred in 1977. Most humans living at the time contributed to this effort. Not just researchers and vaccination teams, but also people paying taxes and people agreeing to vaccinate themselves and their children. The elimination of smallpox is one of the great accomplishments of our species, but it’s important to remember that in the eight years that passed between the WHO’s resolution to end smallpox and the funding of a program to actually accomplish that goal, around 40,000,000 people died of the disease.
The Wikipedia entry for smallpox begins, “Smallpox was an infectious disease.” Was. To situate these horrors in the past tense, immunity must be collective.
My parents came over yesterday for the first time. I hugged them. For whatever reason, I was careful to close off my emotions when embracing them. It’s just a hug, I told myself. I’ve hugged my parents every year of my life--except for the last one. We hugged. We smiled. I held the way-down feelings way down--the yearning and hope and relief. A boy’s comfort in being held by his mom. It was only later, after they left, that I went upstairs to my room, closed the door, and collapsed into tears at last. How will we ever recover from the loss and separation and heartbreak? Perhaps only the same way we will achieve immunity--by sharing it. I give the smallpox vaccine five stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas. Hannis Brown mixes the show and makes the music. We’ll be back next month with two new reviews. In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out The Anthropocene Reviewed book, or come see us on tour. A virtual tour, of course. You can learn more in the show notes. Thanks for being here with us. We’ll leave you today with the sound of me getting my second shot.
John: Okay, we just got our second shots. Sarah, how you feeling?
Sarah: Freakin’ great.
John: I feel mixed, but then it occurs to me that I almost always feel mixed.