Are you upset about the presidential primary elections and caucuses? Candidates are sounding the alarm about national security. They want bigger walls and fences. More guns. Closed borders. Religious tests.
Never have I felt so torn between what I know and what I experience. I’m confronted with two completely different narratives: What I believe, which is that we live in abundance and nature shapes our outcomes; and the political narrative, which states that we live in scarcity and there are more important dangers than anything happening in nature.
Which is reality?
What I know:
The first narrative is the one I hear from history. I’ve been reading a fascinating book, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia. In the book Abulafia traces the epic rises and falls of humanity against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.
I was astonished to learn that Marseilles was founded by the Phoenicians. That the schism of the Roman Empire was based on access to sea trade routes east and west of Sicily. That Jews, Christians, and Muslims have both peacefully co-existed and prosecuted brutal naval wars amongst each other for 50 generations. That dynasties have flourished through trade and have vanished as resources are exhausted.
H.G. Wells paints a similar picture in his History of the World where he traces the rise and fall of civilization against epic forces like ice ages, the evolution of language, and the development of currency. I had no idea that the Balkans have experienced multiple human diasporas over centuries. Today’s displaced Syrian refugees are only the latest people to mass migrate out of the region. The Irish, the Finns, and the Mongols are all related to a common nomadic gene pool.
Bulgarian refugee children from Gorno Brodi after the Second Balkan War resettled in Pestera (source)
The picture that these two writers paint is an endless tapestry of humanity: nomads arrive to a steady state civilization and conquer the settlers. The conquerors melt into the gene pool of the conquered; and at some point become the settlers. And then, inevitably new outsiders arrive, and the whole dance begins anew.
What I know – and what these books affirm for me – is that people who make the most of their resources, and stay brightly engaged in the betterment of their society are less susceptible to conquering nomads.
What I hear:
Politicians are ringing the alarm.
When pundits on the right sound their alarms, they bring up the same players who have been at play in the histories presented by Abulafia and Wells. Some radical Muslims are agitating against the Jews and Christians – since 2001 we have lost 45 people to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In the context of history, these extremist groups are failing. Factually, Americans have more to worry about from friendly fire on U.S. soil than hostile invaders. All that political handwringing keeps us in a state of distraction.
When the pundits on the left get on their soap box, they point to economic fairness. It’s true that the income inequity in our workforce is greater than ever. But America remains at the highest zone of the financial pyramid, with a robust economy more stable than any other on the planet. In the 1300s entire cities were conquered and chained to the oars of military galleys when their fortunes failed. We can simply choose to buy domestic, or healthy, or green, or even save dollars for the future.
So when I compare the facts of today against history, this alarm doesn’t ring true for me.
What both experiences have in common:
Both Abulafia and Wells offer a serious cautionary note: the fate of humanity is inexorably linked to the health of their local ecosystem. When weather is severe like in an ice age, nomadic peoples like the Mongols are pressed along the lines of longitude into settled peoples and turmoil ensues. Now think about the Egyptians and Saudis in the Middle East heat waves experienced last summer.
When food runs out from drought or massive population drops, people pick-up and move and economies like the Kingdom of Sicily shudder. Now think about Angela Merkl’s challenge with thousands of refugees.
Men sleep on concrete road dividers during a heat wave in Delhi on May 27, 2015 (source)
You want to be alarmed?
When essential resources are exhausted, military power cannot be projected. The rule of law erodes when governments cannot count on sustained ecological systems. The rulers of Cyprus and Lebanon learned this in the middle ages when their forests disappeared and warships could not be built. Think about how fast Brazil and Indonesia are exhausting their resource base. Or how drought stricken California grows 40% of our food.
The lessons of history are clear: settled and complacent people are conquered by new people with new ideas. That is the pattern of humanity that has played out for THOUSANDS of years. It is in our DNA. And we ignore the forces of nature at our peril. Nature seeks abundance through endless birth and death, at her own pace. We must align to her.
I hope that in 2016 we come to our senses and recognize that we as a country are already great.
Our resource base allows us to project power: the power of clean technology, of renewables, of genetically pure food stuffs. Our economic system is a great enabler: everybody can attack the system with all the drive they possess and create new businesses.
We already have what we need to get the job done. The sky ain’t falling.