Now that we’ve been living with the COVID-19 virus in the US for most of 2020, perhaps it is time to start thinking about how this pandemic can be viewed in the long-term perspective of history and even prehistory. Start at the beginning of this essay series here or browse all of the posts here. These are reworked sections from the book, Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail?
We are now shifting gears from the ways in which we can look at our current situation to our response to human-caused disasters. Although I am not promoting any particular religion or belief system here, I would like to rely upon the four horsemen of the apocalypse to carry us through this section. Disease, War, Famine, and Death are thought to ride white, red, black, and pale horses, respectively. For our purposes, we will add environmental degradation, or Blight, who will be riding a green horse (what else?). It is true that these disasters can be made worse by natural processes, but the underlying cause is still humankind. As with the preceding list, this cavalcade of calamity is incomplete. Some of the categories might be combined or broken in two, but the content would remain the same. Let’s attack these topics in order from most to least preventable, in my subjective opinion.
The Red Horse: War
“Conflict” is a rather broad term encompassing small-scale interpersonal violence and global warfare in eight letters. Many will take issue with the fact that I am starting with conflict as the most preventable human-caused disaster, but I am convinced that the excuses used to foment violence are just that, excuses. I cannot decide whether humans inherently favor war or peace, are bad or good, or are selfish or altruistic, but it does not matter for our current discussion: war, conflict, and violence exist whether it is nurture or nature that causes it. I do want to point out, though, that even though a fight-or-flight response is in our DNA, our learned behavior should be able to overcome it: we already regulate innate drives for food, sex, and comfort by learning socially accepted behaviors. What is most germane to our study are the origins, reasons, and solutions for conflict in the ancient (and modern) world.
It would be naïve and reductive to say that we could simply stop conflict if all imbalances were eliminated: evolution dictates that variation is found within every biological population and since we have become sedentary, nearly every society has stratified itself. Some have even argued that warfare is why people joined into chiefdom- and state-level societies (e.g., Carneiro 1990). Before sedentism, removing oneself from potential conflict by leaving one band to form another was a possibility, but once we became tied to particular plots of land and infrastructure, we were loath to leave them behind. Thus the only practical way to stop conflict before violence breaks out is a socially enforced redress system. This can range from the shunning practiced by Amish communities to courts of law developed by state-level societies. Over millions of years we evolved in small, kin-based communities and today we may have trouble handling social interaction with thousands of people, let alone the nearly eight billion and counting. We are still fairly good at handling small-scale disagreements, but once it moves beyond our neighborhood, city, or region, we have trouble empathizing with people we have never met who have different points of view from us, and this is why warfare often accompanies colonialism. The global community is still trying to work out an effective redress system. We continue to see violence within and between nations. Even after the 1945 establishment of the United Nations, whose primary purpose is to redress problems before they lead to violence,1 we have seen over a dozen declared wars.2 From the 1500s to 1900s, the average person’s likelihood of dying of large-scale violence has grown from 56 out of every 100,000, to 1157 in the 1900s (but death by disease and other factors went down considerably over this time).3
We are lucky that COVID-19 has not flared up during a global conflict. Unlike the 1918 flu, which was spread by the movement of troops during World War I, we are not dealing with a worldwide crisis seen as more urgent than the pandemic. As we’re seeing with hurricanes and other localized disasters, more pressing problems can cause us to drop our vigilance against spreading the infection wider.
I doubt a real solution for large-scale conflict will be found, because people are not mentally equipped to empathize with billions of other people whom they do not know and who live in ways that are considered taboo in their own society. Overcoming millions of years of hunter-gatherer band-level cognitive evolution in a few hundred years of global interconnectedness is unlikely. If a simple solution existed, it would have been developed already; the scale of this challenge requires a complex answer. Peaceful communities in large-scale societies often stem from a conscious decision to avoid physical conflict: Buddhists, Jains, pacifists, Quakers, Shakers, and others. Although made up of individuals who do not all conform perfectly to the organizations’ tenets, these groups may be worth looking to for strategies to endow a broader swath of humanity with the anti-conflict mentality. Whether it is from a religious or philosophical point of view, the individual choice to avoid conflict must be universal to bring on the clichéd outbreak of “world peace.” If even 99 out of 100 communities agree to resolve their differences without physical conflict, the one dissenting group will soon dominate them all.
The Black Horse: Famine
Food shortages and hunger are common in all scales of society (hunters and gatherers are often hungriest during the late-winter months while the poor in state-level societies lack food security year round), but shortage does not become a famine until enough people die from starvation that the mortality rate rises.4 This is a loose definition, and the transition from shortage to famine is an indistinct point along a continuum. Modern governments define specific criteria that constitute “famine,” which is when central authorities are expected to step in to alleviate what has become an emergency.
Today’s hunger, however, is due not to ecological disasters but the inequitable distribution of food. This has become exceedingly clear during the COVID-19 crisis. The long lines and strain on the food pantry system demonstrates the precariousness of domestic food supplies. The glut of dairy causing thousands of pounds of milk to be thrown away, the thousands of slaughtered hogs, and the difficulty finding fieldworkers to pick produce, demonstrate weaknesses in our supply chain. While we may have adapted now by the end of the summer, the underlying, systemic weaknesses were not addressed. (See general article from Time here and the New York Times here.)
In state-level societies, more people live in cities and earn their sustenance by trading their skills for food. When the production, trade, and distribution of food is taken out of the hands of a large segment of the population and given over to the market, government, or other entity, food security is no longer an individual problem but a systemic one. As the Irish Potato Famine illustrated, even in times of surplus production, a central authority can create famine conditions through mismanagement. To hear a fuller discussion, have a listen to Low Tech Podcast, episode no. 9 – Food Distribution.
The Green Horse: Blight
Here I am taking liberties with the term blight, as I am referring to anthropogenic environmental degradation, pollution, and infrastructure failures. Originally the term described diseases that wither plants, but it now has a wider meaning that includes areas that are dilapidated or destroyed. Although blight often accompanies natural disasters, such as droughts and fire, we are looking at problems whose root cause is human activity. They all involve our failures to prevent a natural system from breaking down or the degradation of that system to the point where it no longer supports life.
In one sense, the pandemic may limit a few of the major causes of global warming: transportation and production. On the other hand, by worrying about whether or not a friend, loved one, or yourself is about to die of a serious illness tends to blot out the importance of the existential — but slow-moving — threat of climate change. The current pandemic has been used as an excuse to ignore or — in many cases — exacerbate the mess we’re in. The UN reports on environmental regulations being rolled back with COVID-19 as political and media cover. This can even come full circle, as worse environments can contribute to worse health outcomes.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors are often romanticized as “living in balance with nature,” but wherever they lived, they contributed to environmental degradation: human waste, deforestation, over-hunting, over-gathering, and so on. The difference is the size of their population. The local environment could easily recover from the worst a dozen nomads could dish out in the short time they occupied any camp. The reason they lived in balance with nature was because of their small numbers and light ecological footprint. The primary inorganic materials they used were stones and sometimes metal. The latter led to the production of the first concentrated pollutants, such as lead. Early cities were disgusting because our ancestors had problems dealing with their waste products. We may think our “shit don’t stink,” because we no longer have excrement flowing down the middle of our streets, but we have just gotten better at moving all of our pollution, not just human waste5, out of sight and mind. Our ever denser, larger, and more consumptive sedentary society produces much more than can be digested by natural processes. The most egregious include mercury, radioactive compounds, pesticides, and plastics, which are pervasive, cheap, and chock-full of chemicals whose long-term effects on the body are not fully understood.6
The White Horse: Disease
Disease is another broad category of human misery, and can be divided into slow, chronic disease and the pandemic-causing, fast-acting plagues. I cannot list all of the diseases afflicting modern and ancient societies, but a look at the most common will give us an insight into the differences in our lives.
The life expectancy of nonindustrial, sedentary, agricultural societies was much lower than today, not rising above 40 years of age until around 1900.7 Although many people did live past 40, the infant mortality rate was high enough to drag down this average. While some chronic diseases caused death, most people died for other reasons (e.g., accidents, violence, poisoning, pandemics, etc.) before slow-acting maladies could kill them. For example, only ten percent of people infected with tuberculosis will experience symptoms (such as a bloody cough, fever, and weight loss) and this after years of latency. A person may suffer from minor symptoms of syphilis shortly after infection, but neurosyphilis and cardiovascular syphilis, which are fatal, take decades to appear. Arthritis generally takes years of hard labor and repetitive action to cause debilitating joint pain. Leprosy takes up to two decades to cause lesions and respiratory problems, yet the social stigma of this disease may be more fatal than the infection. Other maladies, such as malaria, worms, and dental caries (cavities), cause discomfort, but are not necessarily lethal.
Today’s chronic diseases in the industrialized parts of the world are related to our abundant sources of food and other pleasures, coupled with our increased longevity. Today’s life expectancy exceeds 80 years in 33 countries (even the least-developed countries have life expectancies over 50 years).8 This long life gives chronic diseases enough time to advance to fatal stages. In descending order, the biggest killers in the world’s richest countries are heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, Alzheimer’s and dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or lung disorders) and respiratory infections, colon cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and breast cancer, all of which are more common as people age. The reason we have been able to live so long is that we have developed strategies to fight chronic diseases that affect young people. One of the greatest success stories is polio, which now only infects a few hundred people per year instead of hundreds of thousands. We have less ability to fight the chronic diseases of the elderly in the industrialized world because they have only become the major causes of death in the last century. Heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and COPD are linked to tobacco use and poor diet, both of which can be prevented, but getting people to give up immediate pleasures for only a chance at future gain is not easy.
In contrast, pandemics can destroy both the old and young populations before a solution can be found, or, in the case of COVID-19, the older and immuno-compromised populations. Some diseases have a distinctly historical patina: bubonic plague, small pox, anthrax, Yellow Fever, cholera, and typhoid. Some diseases are difficult to prevent, because they are spread by pests, such as fleas (Bubonic Plague) and mosquitoes (Yellow Fever). Others, such as Cholera and Typhoid, are spread through feces-contaminated drinking water. Yet others, such as Small Pox and Anthrax, require contact with infected people, animals, or objects. The historical mortality rates for these diseases can reach over 90 percent, with deaths occurring within days of infection. Ancient people in large, densely packed cities were the most vulnerable to the spread of an epidemic: they lacked the knowledge necessary to prevent or treat infections, tight quarters encouraged disease transmission, and, as more people died, fewer were available to care for the sick or remove the dead.
Although public health efforts over the last century have tamped down well-known diseases, when we are faced with a novel threat, our short-term defenses are not much better than those of Medieval Europe at the height of the Bubonic plague. Even with knowledge of how to prevent Ebola and treat the infected, the dense populations in Africa and lack of assistance from the international community allowed the 2014 outbreak to metastasize. Eventually, vaccines were rushed into production and public education campaigns slowly brought the disease under control. Neither of these measures would have been available to those dying of epidemics just a century ago. Luckily for us, all of the diseases mentioned in the previous paragraph are preventable, but wily viruses and bacteria are constantly evolving and the human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Ebola are but three examples of recently identified diseases for which we have no widely available vaccine. Another worry is the overuse of antibiotics, which kills most bacteria but leaves drug-resistant strains intact, allowing for fatal infections such as methicillin-resistant staphylococci (MRSA) (Mole 2013).
In the long view of history, COVID-19 will rank near the influenza outbreak of 1918: serious, contageous, but it could be worse. Respiratory failure is a terrible way to die, but it isn’t a hemoragic fever, like Ebola. COVID-19 is contageous, but not as bad as measles, which can be caught simply by entering a room half an hour after another person was in it. The influenza of 1918 lost steam when enough people had had it so that person-to-person transmission became stymed. It will take a year at current infection rates to get enough of the US population infected (assuming being sick once does give immunity). Hopefully by then, a vaccine will be effective and available, obviating the need for everyone to take the chance of getting sick.
Unfortunately, epidemics and disease do not usually strike when everything else is going well, instead they accompany other systemic breakdowns. In periods of famine, for example, most people die of disease, not hunger, as their weakened immune systems cannot fight off common infections (Millman and Kates 1990:15-16). War can also cause priorities to shift away from cleanliness and treating chronic conditions to more immediate matters of life and death. Although Ebola had been identified in the 1970s, a vaccine was not rushed into production until after the largest outbreak to date threatened to spread the virus globally. Luckily, COVID-19 is a clear enough existential and economic threat as to necessitate a global effort. As with other problems, people tend to lurch from crisis to crisis without planning ahead and stopping small problems from getting worse.
The Pale Horse: Death
Death is the great unifier: we will all go through it, yet nobody living can tell us what it will be like from personal experience; it also ties together the topics of this post. Rarely do any of the aforementioned disasters occur in isolation: drought and famine are bosom buddies, fires and flooding follow on the heels of tropical cyclones, and disease is perhaps the most gregarious calamity, as it shows up following any disaster. Throughout this chapter, it was easy to see the explicit relationship between catastrophes and the environment, agriculture, trade, and social organizations. Many disasters are driven by these systems, for example, environmental changes can affect the severity and occurrence of tropical cyclones, wildfires, flooding, and drought. Agricultural failure and the collapse of social organization can precipitate famine, war, and disease. Trade is most often linked to the spread of pandemics. The influence also flows in the other direction, as disasters can disrupt social systems in even more pronounced ways. Volcanism, earthquakes, tsunamis, blight, and war can permanently alter local, regional, or global environments. An agricultural system can fail as the result of volcanism, fire, flooding, drought, war, famine, disease, or blight; practically every calamity in this chapter! As goes agriculture, so goes social organization, and the decline of surplus agriculture due to any unforeseen problem destabilizes community organization. Although trade in ancient society overly benefited the social elites and the failure of trade might not have caused social collapse in the same way of agriculture, it is perhaps the most sensitive system, as it can be disrupted by any of the disasters described here. This is worrying in today’s world because everything we eat is traded in some way.
1See the United Nations Charter, Chapter I, Article 1 (http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter1.shtml).
2The proposed Polynational War Memorial (http://www.war-memorial.net/) has a comprehensive list of conflicts since 1900.
3This is an approximate calculation, yet the 20-fold increase in deaths per 100,000 people must be reflecting the more efficient means by which we can put people in harms way as technology improves.
|Century||Births||Deaths by Large-Scale Violence||Per 100,000 Deaths|
|1500s||2.840 billion||1.6 million||56|
|1600s||3.006 billion||6.1 million||203|
|1700s||3.609 billion||7.0 million||194|
|1800s||4.923 billion||19.4 million||394|
|1900s||9.483 billion||109.7 million||1157|
Others, though, (e.g., LeBlanc 2003) would ascribe a higher death rate to hunger-gatherer societies, up to a quarter of all adult males (12,500 per 100,000), but with a small population, a single death creates a higher rate. The global homicide rate in 2012 was 6.2 per 100,000 (UN 2013). In Medieval Europe, the rates were as high as 110 per 100,000 (this figure is disputed, others cite 4 per 100,000; summarized in Eisner 2003).
4I am using definitions and information about the mechanics of famines from Garnsey’s (1988) Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis, and an article by William Torry (1984).
5It is really only “waste” in urban and industrial environments; in small-scale agriculture, it is fertilizer.
6The chemicals used to produce the variety of forms of plastic are not bound forever in their synthetic forms: they leech into their surroundings when bombarded by microwaves, boiling water, or sunlight. The ingestion of these compounds has been linked to obesity, its related diseases, and a variety of other problems (e.g., Bittner et al. 2014; Blake 2014; Grün and Blumberg 2009).
7I am relying on Preston’s (1995) chapter, “Human Mortality Throughout History and Prehistory.”
8The World Health Organization has interactive maps showing the distribution of life expectancy, causes of death, and other information (http://www.who.int).
Bittner, George D., Chun Z. Yang, and Matthew A. Stoner. 2014. Estrogenic chemicals often leach from BPA-free plastic products that are replacements for BPA-containing polycarbonate products. Environmental Health 13:41.
Blake, Mariah. 2014. Are Any Plastics Safe?: Inside the Big-Tobacco-style campaign to bury the disturbing evidence about the products you use every day. Mother Jones. March/April:18-25, 62-61.
Carneiro, Robert L. 1990. Chiefdom-level warfare as exemplified in Fiji and the Cauca Valley. In The Anthropology of War, edited by Jonathan Haas, pp. 190-211. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Eisner, Manuel. 2003. Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime. In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol. 30, edited by Michael Tonry, pp. 60-142. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Garnsey, Peter. 1988. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Grün, Felix and Bruce Blumberg. 2009. Minireview: The Case for Obesogens. Molecular Endocrinology 23(8):1127-1134.
Haub, Carl. 2011. How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth? Electronic document, http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx, accessed November 12, 2014.
Krug, Etienne G., Linda L. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony B. Zwi and Rafael Lozano. 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. World Health Organization, Geneva.
Millman, Sara and Robert W. Kates. 1990. Toward Understanding Hunger. In Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation, edited by Lucile F. Newman, pp. 3-24. Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Preston, Samuel H. 1995. Human Mortality throughout History and Prehistory. In The State of Humanity, edited by J. Simon, pp. 31-35. Blackwell, Oxford.
Torry, William I. 1984. Social Science Research on Famine: A Critical Evaluation. Human Ecology 12(3):227-252.
United Nations. 2013. Global Study on Homicide. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Vienna.