Acton Commentary

Contagious Community


Last year’s movie Contagion, which featured a star-studded ensemble cast, was successful in large part because it portrayed in a concrete, realistic, and believable way some of the deepest fears of human beings. All of us recognize, to one extent or another, the precious gift that life is, and we also recognize life’s inherent fragility. This shared human understanding is one of the things that makes disaster stories—films in particular—so popular. They connect with some universal sense of the tenuousness of human social life and real threats, such as the recent scares surrounding possible pandemics like the Asian bird flu outbreak of 2005 or swine flu concerns of 2009.

Contagion Map

A map of global disease outbreak
from the film Contagion (2011)

As disease runs rampant on a global scale, the film shows how thin the bonds of civilization can be, as people desperate for survival descend quickly into mob violence, rioting, and looting. Again, there’s something here that resonates deeply with us, as we all realize how quickly things can come to resemble a Hobbesian “state of nature,” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What makes Contagion so powerful is that it successfully integrates the complex dynamics of globalization into the story, showing how quickly, given international travel and commerce, diseases might spread. In a very real way this film shows us how interconnected the world really is, as something that happens in Hong Kong (unlike Vegas, perhaps) doesn’t stay in Hong Kong, but rather spreads throughout the world in a remarkably short period of time.

But while the film is clear about the dangers of globalized human relationships, it also teaches a more subtle lesson. Even as disease represents a danger that can have worldwide impact, such dangers remain the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the film portrays quite well how global networks of information and exchange are absolutely foundational for our contemporary world. There are certainly institutional and human failures in the film, many of which are quite plausible, or even probable. But it is also clear that global interconnection is not simply negative, even though we often overlook the positive benefits.

Leonard Read illustrated this positive global dynamic powerfully in the essay, “I, Pencil,” in which a common pencil narrates the back story, a “genealogy,” of its production and dissemination to a near-universal level of familiarity, “to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.” Lester DeKoster similarly invites us to consider the construction of the chairs in which we sit every day, and the complex web of human action that must be applied to such things to fit them for our use. “We are physically unable, it is obvious,” he concludes, “to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting—to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.”

"The International Maritime Organization based in London
estimates that 90 percent of the world's
trade is moved around the planet by sea."

It’s not simply diseases that we “give” and “catch” to and from other human beings around the world; it’s also goods and services. This, too, displays something uniquely human. Certain kinds of animals migrate, to be sure, sometimes on a stunning scale. Consider the movement patterns of migratory birds, or the wide-ranging travels of various whales, for example. But the social nature of the human person, created in the image of God with a moral obligation to serve others through the use of reason and effort, is unique in the created order. So even while our material bodies are subject to disease and danger, very often from our interactions with other people, so too are these bodies served by the application of spiritual effort (as in prayer) and mental effort (as in scientific research) to find comfort amidst suffering and the best solutions possible to the wide range of human maladies.

In this way, ideas too are contagious, which is why they are often referred to analogously as “viral.” There are certainly good ideas and bad ideas that are spread, just as there are goods and services as well as diseases and afflictions that are communicated throughout the world. But ultimately we must realize that we are in no way better off alone, or “solitary,” as Hobbes puts it, which he quite rightly recognizes is connected to life also being “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As human community becomes more developed on a global scale, we can see empirically as well as practically, that life is more often and increasingly (although with notable and lamentable exceptions) wealthy, pleasant, civilized, and long.