I. Is the arc of history bending toward peace?
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
Tumbldown recently quoted this blog’s mantra (in a very sympathetic layout, thanks td!) that Planet Earth is evolving a mammalian brain, that the internet is knitting the synapses, and people like you and I are its conscience.
That’s a statement rooted in a progressive view of human history — which on good days I believe to the very fibre-optics of my being — but which of course has been a subject of phierce philosophical phighting since Rousseau (humans are savage, civilization tames them) took it up with Hobbes (life outside society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”).
But anthropologist Steven Pinker claims he can actually quantify civilization’s civilization of our species, and his conclusion is that we live today in the most peaceful age in the history of humanity’s mortgage of Planet Earth.
He sites historical examples of violent entertainment (like cat burning, in which live cats were lowered into fires for the amusement of crowds) which were considered mass entertainment a few centuries ago, but which today we’d label –well– barbaric.
Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history.
OK, I know in parts it sounds like US foreign and domestic policy today, and others are certainly still the norm in Darfur and elsewhere, but does he have a point? Has the standard of civilization changed since the middle ages? And was that standard an improvement on the dark ages, and that standard an improvement on the Greek and Roman? For the latter, evidence would suggest so when we witness the forms of punishment which included the party gag of roasting people alive in a brazen bull. I don’t think anyone does that any more, even at the White House.
Pinker’s case on war is the most interesting. He claims that modern warfare, despite the mechanization of weaponry, claims less lives as a proportion of the population then old tribal forms:
… in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
I’d add another bit of evidence to the arc toward peace theory: the biggest mass protest in the history of the world, February 15th 2003, touched off by the imminent invasion of Iraq. That was a flexing of the power of the “second superpower” which had to give warmongers pause — and may in fact have stayed their hands already.
I want to believe. But I also wonder just how peaceful the world might stay if we fail in our mission to stop global warming, and those centuries of civilization are suddenly confronted with billions of climate refugees, wars for water, and mass famine.
II. How many plastic bags have you used in your life, and how many are still out there?
When I lived in Rome, I lived in the shadow of Testaccio, a man-made mountain of garbage dating back to the Caesars, and made up entirely of earthenware shards from the Amphora which once transported olive oil and wine across the empire. They were simply heaped there on the banks of the Tiber river. The fired clay of which they are made breaks down so slowly that nobody yet knows when they will finally cease to be.
Today’s Amphora are plastic bags.
Boingboing recently quoted a Salon story about this:
The problem with plastic bags isn’t just where they end up, it’s that they never seem to end. “All the plastic that has been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces,” says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. That means unless they’ve been incinerated — a noxious proposition — every plastic bag you’ve ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn’t a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you’re dead.
In the pacific, there’s a vast trash vortex in which the amount of plastic exceeds by a factor of 6 the amount of biomass, and it’s getting worse.
So even if we do get smarter, more peaceful. The trouble we as a species face with a long future is that we’ll have to live with the long-lived products of the entire history of civilization.
III. How long can life hold out for another planet? Bruce Sterling blogged a bit of sobering news about attempts to resuscitate microbes from Antarctic ice samples. Beyond a million years, the damage to their DNA from cosmic radiation begins to erode their ability to revive from the deep freeze. By eight million years, they’re barely viable. And this is on Earth, where we’re protected from most of the particle bombardment that happens in deep space. 8 million years would seem like enough time for anything, but the researchers draw a profound conclusion from this:
“Given the extremely high cosmic radiation flux in space, our results suggest it is highly unlikely that life on Earth could have been seeded by genetic material external to this Solar System.”
Which further suggests that the chances of life getting a second chance in some Phillip-K.- Dick-envisioned offworld planet in a distant galaxy is pretty slim as well.
Bottom line: if there’s no hope in the lifeboats, we better take a long, long view in how well we look after the mothership.