The aim of Applied History is to bring to the table insights from the past that may be useful to a given present or future situation. That means a lot of telling people something to the effect of ‘What you’re talking about is similar to X, so look further into X for some possible guidance on what to do, and what not to do.’ This approach is old. Very old. It is asking the same question that has been asked for as long as humans have asked questions: What did our ancestors do in these circumstances? The practice of asking this question has informed the actions of humans since the beginning. Our ancestors managed to survive so that we are here today. They must have been doing something right, so their record was considered useful.
You can imagine, then, how unsettling it would be for the answer to be: ‘They never had to deal with anything like this. We’re on our own.’
This doesn’t happen very often. Most events or ideas are somehow related to, or influenced by, something that has come before. When it does happen, however, we’re forced to make things up as we go; to rely upon trial and error in the hopes that we figure out the best path.
On this day, 236 years ago, a small group of men in Philadelphia decided to undertake an unprecedented political experiment that eventually became the United States of America. Although they were inspired by certain Classical ideals, and although their model was constructed from well-reasoned principles, it cannot be denied that the structure of US was largely created by making things up that were fit for purpose. The project has had its ups and downs, and it will likely be centuries yet before anyone can honestly weigh in on whether or not it has been successful.
The important thing to keep in mind here is that the success or failure of this political experiment is, in the greater scheme of things, inconsequential. If the US were to fall apart, History shows that, although it’s potentially unpleasant for the couple of generations in the immediate aftermath, people will carry on and the event will not likely pose an existential threat to the human race or the planet as a whole. Plunging forward into the unknown to see what happens in this case can thus be considered an acceptable risk.
More recently, however, another unprecedented development has come into being. Like the above example, although trying to draw insight from past actions that have little if any real use as a comparison, when navigating life with this new creation we are forced to make it up as we go along and hope for the best. But the stakes, you see, are much, much higher.
In the early 20th century, humanity granted to itself the power of annihilation.
Sure, human beings have had the capability to inflict mass carnage for thousands of years. The chronicles of the past are filled with massacres, battles, and genocides where countless numbers were put to the sword, mowed down by gunfire, or otherwise killed at a scale that is stomach-churning. But there were limits. The focus might be only on one particular group (the enemy soldiers, or whoever currently bore the label ‘undesirable’). Those ordering the slaughter could call it off with a word. And even in cases of wholesale slaughter, the damage was restricted to a city or region. Nobody had the power to destroy everything. Until now.
We have developed nuclear weapons powerful enough, and in sufficient numbers, to mars the world (yes, I’m using ‘mars’ as a verb, as I can think of no better term to describe what a post-nuclear exchange planet would look like). At least 14 nation-states have access to them, and some of those states don’t like each other very much. With advances in biotechnology, we have graduated from poisoning wells and slinging plague-ridden corpses over enemy walls to having the capability to create super-viruses that could wipe out at least the human population of the planet. Laughably, we have tried to work weapons like these into the way we conduct war; a model that has not been updated in any fundamental way since the 1940s. Furthermore, we’ve grown to sufficient numbers, and have developed certain technologies and ways of living, that simply continuing our current level of existence itself may well have throw off our world’s equilibrium and provoke Gaia to shake us off of her like so many fleas.
Having no precedent for anything even remotely similar to these capabilities to help us determine the best way of navigating life with them, we’ve been making it up as we go along. Thus far our strategies seem somewhat lacking. To date the only real deterrent against a nuclear exchange is the promise that in such a ‘battle’ (and here I use the term loosely) there would be no victor; that both sides, and likely the bystanders as well, would be equally wiped out. The fruits of bio-weapons research are placed in ‘secure’ facilities where, ideally, they will never see the light of day. Dogmas such as ‘Infinite Growth’ and ‘Free Markets’ trumps calls for sustainable, moderate existence, so many either aren’t aware of the data or choose to ignore it.
I’m calling it right here: this is New in all senses of the word. We have no prior experience of anything like this in the two million-year existence of hominids. Lacking any frame of reference, we have no idea how to adequately handle what we have created. We are flying blind.
Go back and read that statement a few more times so it settles in. You’ll know it has when your chest clenches a little bit.
As far as we can tell, no species on this planet has ever had the ability to single-handedly ruin everything for itself and potentially its fellow lifeforms. Within your lifetimes, or that of your parents or grandparents, we suddenly developed that power.
Looking at our track record over the last 10,000 years, does that seem like a good idea to you?