Recent years have been marked by profound shocks. The rise of populism and a crisis of democracy in much of the western world, a pandemic that killed millions and revealed the fragility of our social fabric, an accelerating and existential climate crisis, disastrous and murderous wars in Europe and the Middle East, a new cold war between the US and China—these are but a few reasons to despair.
Conventional wisdom has declared that we live in the most dangerous time since the late 1930’s. This may be true. But it is also true that every generation identifies its threats as uniquely treacherous. After all, evolution has encouraged humans to experience the world as revolving around us. And in periods of stress, we are particularly prone to tunnel vision, typically losing context as a result.
So, in the interest of putting events into perspective, we have sought to delineate five truly devastating periods in humanity’s history, some caused by nature and some by man. In recalling previous dark times we gain perspective about the challenges we face today, and—even more important—about our collective capacity to overcome them.
- The Toba Catastrophe: Around 75,000 years ago, a supervolcanic eruption took place in what is now Indonesia. It led to a volcanic winter that lasted a decade, cooled the planet around 3-5 degrees Celsius, produced a genetic bottleneck, and is believed to have reduced the human population to under 10,000. Humanity came perilously close to being wiped out.
- The Bubonic Plague: In 1346, a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas and rats, spread across Eurasia and North Africa. By some estimates, up to 200 million people perished over the subsequent eight years. Europe’s population was reduced by approximately one-half and took 150 years to recover.
- Smallpox in the Americas: In 1520, a Spanish sailing ship from Cuba landed in Mexico carrying a man infected by smallpox. Unlike the Europeans, who had thousands of years of immunities from animal infections resulting from their farming activities, the peoples of South, Central and North America had no prior exposure to diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles. The result was staggering – up to 95% of the local population died in the ensuing years. With estimates of twenty million dead, it was the germ – as Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond famously noted – not the armament, which set the stage for the European colonization of the Americas.
- The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression: In October 1929, a month after the London Stock Exchange crashed, the US market followed suit and the world’s two largest economies were deeply damaged. Over the subsequent four years, US industrial production fell 47% and real GDP declined 30%. Declines in wholesale prices exceeded 30% and the unemployment rate surpassed 20%. In much of Europe, the dynamics were similar and most industrialized countries experienced deflation of over 30%. The human toll was terrible, with over 60% of rural households and 82% of farms classified as impoverished.
- World War II: Between 1939 and 1945, the deadliest conflict in human history took place. Most of the world’s countries were at war and between 70-85 million people died. Genocide, notably the Holocaust, along with starvation, disease, massacres, and the deployment of the only two nuclear devices ever used in human warfare characterized one of humanity’s darkest periods.
My, what a downer. But what does this summary of disasters have to do with today’s troubles?
First, as difficult as our current challenges appear, we can learn much from history about the human capacity to endure, innovate, and overcome.
Today, in many ways we are we are responding effectively to the crises of our time. Science stopped the pandemic in its tracks, demonstrating the paradigm-shifting advances of mRNA vaccines. Democracy, under threat in the United States, has (thus far) held up. Russia’s naked and murderous aggression in Ukraine has been met by a largely unified response from an expanded NATO. Putin’s military has been significantly degraded, revealing a power far short of super.
Second, humanity is resilient.
Time and again, nature and man have sought to wipe us out. Yet we have bounced back. Out of the devastation of World War II, the West, including vanquished Germany, Italy and Japan, coalesced around a series of multi-lateral institutions – the UN, World Bank, IMF, the European Union, and the WTO—to deliver global economic and political cooperation among nation states never before seen in human history. Even among adversaries such as the US and the Soviet Union, significant progress was made to reduce the risk of nuclear Armageddon, an accomplishment largely forgotten because history does not record the absence of events.
Third, humanity finds a way to come back.
That’s even true regarding its greatest challenge, slowing climate change. The rapid uptake of renewable energy sources and hopes for even more significant breakthroughs, such as fusion energy, point to our ability to adapt. Advances in AI technology herald new strategies to tackle climate challenges. And last week, the Biden-Xi meeting produced a rare pledge to renew climate cooperation and pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 globally.
Fourth, human progress is not linear.
Often our better angels are only revealed in response to tragedy, calamity, and threat. The images of wanton violence against innocent civilians cause us to recoil, but they also enable us to regroup. We cannot know whether the tragedies on and since October 7 will lead to the search for enduring solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but already they are driving greater focus on the dynamics at play and a desire to move beyond the status quo ante.
We never welcome human tragedy, but when it inevitably arises, we often find the courage to think and act in ways that previously eluded us. More than a thousand years of civil war in Europe found its resolution in the ashes of 1945. Few might have believed then that what would subsequently arise would be peace, harmony, and unprecedented cooperation spanning three generations of Europeans.
Later this week, US families join in giving thanks. Many will return to loved ones with heavy hearts, burdened by the unending news of suffering and threats. But upon reflection, many of us will be thankful for our collective spirit, resolve, and ingenuity to meet and overcome challenges.
Ours is not a uniquely troubled world. Only the specifics are new or different. The common thread of our being is that within us resides the capacity to overcome. Humanity has not lost its ability to bend arcs in the directions of justice, freedom, civility, sustainability, and peace. We only require the will to do so.