Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
7-C. A Brief History of Disaster:
by Richard Jewell
This is the long version of this chapter (about
14,000 words). If you'd like to read a
shorter version (about 7000 words), go to
What does the picture above tell you about death in the Middle Ages (medieval times)? What have you, in your own life, experienced about death? Note that while this chapter is very factual, simply outlining the facts about which most historians agree, the chapter also is very serious and potentially depressing. You may not want to read it unless you are ready to hear bad news about the history (and prehistory) of the world.
In fact, why read this chapter at all? The reason is the same as why we study history. "History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes," someone (possibly Mark Twain) once said. If we can factually observe and then understand the patterns of history, we are not doomed to have them rhyme in ways quite as bad for us We can modify our futures. For example, by knowing more about previous pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918, you might better prepare yourself for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In other words, by knowing the patterns of history, we have the power to affect disasters. This is true both in how we handle them as societies and how you, yourself, choose to deal with them as an individual. Some disasters are predictable, even planned, such as in war; others can take you by surprise. Either way, to the great majority of people in
society, a disaster is an unwanted surprise or change: even if you see it coming, you may not be prepared for the actual negative change, itself.
Major disasters bring us not just major death but also major sickness, panic, fear, wrecked lives, and even additional disasters. The world has experienced many such disasters. This chapter expands on the short history section of the previous chapter. This present chapter is by no means a complete history, which would take many books to write. However, here is a a little more detail about some of the best or biggest examples of disasters on earth.
Two ways to assess a disaster
Before you begin actually reading about the history of disasters, this chapter begins by suggesting two questions you can ask that many historians consider, in order to evaluate historic disasters:
(1) Life cycle: What are the birth, life, and death of a disaster?
(2) Paradigm shift: Does a Disaster Change How People Think and Feel?
Both of these are explained below:
(1) Life cycle: What are the birth, life, and death of a disaster?
One way you can examine disasters is to look at how each one is born, lives, and dies. Each disaster has this life cycle, with short-term, medium-term, and long-term consequences, as follows:
Birth: A disaster's birth often is sudden and surprising, at least to those experiencing it. For example, one of the very biggest prehistoric climate-change disasters occurred about 66 million BCE (BC). In one great, crashing minute in time, a large asteroid hit the earth. The result was the extinction of about 80% of all animal species on earth.
A disaster also can start more slowly but still seem sudden to those who experience it. For example, the COVID-19 virus quietly infected a small handful of people in Wuhan, China, then spread to a few hundred, then a few thousand. This took weeks, but most people did not know they were sick at first, and then most thought they had the flu. Only after several weeks did Chinese medical and political authorities realize that COVID-19 was killing and hospitalizing more than a normal flu would. After several more weeks and rigorous social controls and closings of businesses, they thought they had controlled it. However, because of the long period of time in each infected individual for the flu to show symptoms--and because of the ease with which the virus passed from person to person in groups--they were wrong. By then the virus had secretly spread to the whole world through travel by air and ship.
China first reported the unknown virus December 31, 2020, and the country did not realize it needed to shut down most social movement in the affected city, Wuhan, until several weeks later, in January. Without anyone knowing it at the time, the virus already had spread by December 27 to at least one person in France, on record, and likely to dozens, even hundreds, outside of China. And in New York in the U.S., for example, authorities told people throughout February that it had few or no cases, whereas researchers now know, through retrospective studies, that dozens or more people in New York had brought it there by plane primarily from Europe, and thousands of New Yorkers were traveling with it, undetected, on subways and trains and in streets and public places without anyone realizing it. Plane travel from Europe to New York was not discontinued until weeks after it was too late.
By Feb. 27, 2020 in the entire U.S., only fourteen known COVID-19 deaths had occurred. But researchers later reported, tracking the first infections backward, that the virus had started in the U.S. in January and, by Feb. 27, likely had infected thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, almost invisibly. Infections from New York alone may have led to up to 60 to 65% of infections throughout the U.S., primarily from Europe, according to Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health in an interview with the New York Times' Benedict Carey and James Glanz updated April 30.
As a result of all these factors, the COVID-19 disaster took a few months to start. There was a moment of conception, when the first human was infected. However, the birth of it as a pandemic--a disaster--was longer. It also was so undetectable--thus little prepared for by the great majority of people and even many researchers--that it became fully born as a pandemic disaster before it was even very noticeable.
Life: The lifetime of a disaster is the period of time when it is wreaking havoc on a society or civilization. This can be just a few weeks, but more often it is months, years, or occasionally centuries. The Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda, for example, lasted only three months. However, it was a huge disaster for the Tutsi tribal people, killing 75% of them, perhaps half a million people in all, with half that many more raped before war stopped it. Another disaster, relatively short for a crisis that shook the entire world, was the 1918 to 1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, ending with about 50 to 100 million dead worldwide, most of them young adults, as the pandemic wore on. Some strains of that flu changed genetically to less virulent forms, and a large number of people acquired immunity to it.
However, some disasters can continue for centuries. The No-Sun Disaster of 536 CE (AD), in which a volcano eruption in Iceland caused the sun to nearly disappear in a haze for almost two years in much of the world, led to widespread starvation. And this, in turn, caused invasions and pandemic bubonic plagues to sweep the world, slowing its cultural and scientific development for as much as a thousand years. Likewise, five or more major extinction events (one of which is mentioned above) have swept the earth over the hundreds of millions of years of life on this planet, altering the course of evolution each time for tens of thousands of years or more.
Death: The death, or end, of a major disaster also can be sudden or long. The two biggest war disasters the world has experienced, World War I and II, each ended fairly quickly with the final official surrenders in 1918 and 1945 by those who lost. Even when the death of a disaster may take months or sometimes years, for humanity, the psychological end of the disaster is important: the moment in time when the public at large knows the disaster has ended, and it will have only the remaining effects of the changes to handle. The No-Sun Disaster arguably didn't end until the Medieval Period in Europe was over and the Renaissance began: the start of the Renaissance in the 1300s and 1400s was itself a long turning point in European history, as the Medieval Period clung to many less wealthy parts of Europe. As a result, most people were not even aware that the Medieval Period was over until well into the Renaissance. For this reason it is difficult to give a precise date for the death of the No-Sun Disaster.
(2) Paradigm shift: Does a disaster change how people think and feel?
Another way of examining disasters in history is to consider how they create permanent changes in how people think and feel. Disasters cause upsets and new directions, sometimes dramatically so. This is because, suddenly, a society or civilization is forced to deal with an unexpected, seemingly overwhelming negative. This, in turn, causes a person to see and feel life differently and then always live life differently. Such a change is called a "paradigm shift." A paradigm shift is not just a change in life, but rather a reorientation in how people understand life, with new eyes, as it were, and to live life with different guiding principles or understandings. A paradigm shift can be either for the better or for the worse; generally, though, it is simply just a different way of seeing, believing, living, loving, and hating.
For example, as a child you might see the best that life has to offer as an ice cream cone at the end of the day. However, after a personal inward growth in wisdom, sudden or slow, you might realize that your family or your friends are the best that life has to offer. That is a change in your personal paradigm. Ever after that change, you will no longer think so much about ice cream, but you will orient your life much more toward family or friends. Real-life paradigm shifts such as this, except much larger in scale, happen throughout history to entire societies and civilizations, especially during and after disasters. These shifts change scientific, practical, philosophical, and popular thinking as a package, interwoven with each other, creating what often seems like a total shift in societies' or civilizations' points of view.
"Paradigm shift" is a phrase introduced to scholarly and popular culture by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was a philosopher of the history of science at the University of California-Berkeley. In Structure, he argues that we tend to think of science as progressing forward evenly and regularly; but, he says, this is not always true: sometimes, it may suddenly jump forward and take an entirely new twist or turn called a "paradigm shift." In a paradigm shift, not just new science is quickly developed, but new theories and new approaches--new "paradigms" or ways of using and understanding science--that, when they have fully flowered, cannot even be measured by the old paradigms. Kuhn said that "the proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals" characterizes the search for and discovery of a truly new paradigm in science (p. 91, 1962 ed.). He believed that science has made significant shifts in paradigm in part through cultural and societal pressures and influences.
Paradigm shifts in science--and in history--often occur especially during or shortly after disasters. This is because change is greater at such times, sometimes even sudden, which leads people to seek more solutions in more ways, and more quickly.
For example, in the scientific field, the 1918 to 1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, against which the world could do little but socially isolate, caused a paradigm shift in science as scientists learned the pandemic was not from bacteria but rather from viruses. At that time, viruses were more theory than clear fact. Science had to look more carefully at what viruses might mean, and what they might be able to do. Even new proposals about the spread of viruses were only somewhat helpful during the Spanish Flu. However, the relative helplessness of science at that time may have led to greater study and understanding of viruses. And especially, it may have led in the 1930s and 1940s to faster mass production of electron microscopes, invented in 1931, that could actually see viruses. The old theories of bacteria, while still true up to a point, could not adequately express what viruses were and what they could do.
Another example of a paradigm shift, historically, was away from the use of the atom bomb in World War II, and from that war's mass industrialized methods of purposely killing millions of citizens. These dramatically enhanced acts of war made both scientists and the public reconsider the value or need for wars. The scientists discovered that hundreds or thousands of nuclear bombs used in a war not only would kill tens or hundreds of millions immediately and from radiation soon after, but also that a large number of nuclear explosions could create a "nuclear winter" like the No-Sun disaster of 535 to 536 CE (AD) or even like the 66 million BCE asteroid extinction event that caused the death of 80% of all animal species. These events and discoveries, in turn, helped create a paradigm shift that made worldwide organizations and laws about war much more desirable to most countries in the world. Two examples are the United Nations developed in part to prevent another world war, and the Geneva Conventions about legal and illegal use of war and its weapons. This is why, for example, the United Nations organization forbids a member country invading another without good reason, and why the Geneva Conventions forbid nations from using chemical and biological weapons of war.
As a result of the cataclysmic destruction of World War II, the entire world and its scientific establishments measure war differently: more scientifically and more cautiously than civilization was able to perceive in the past. In this paradigm shift, individual countries no longer have an absolute right to pursue their own destinies if war (or genocide) is involved; rather, the new paradigm is that practical, scientific ethics must guide what all countries do, and there are now world governing bodies to make sure such practices are carried out. This is true, even though some rogue nations ignore this paradigm change, and major nations such as Russia and the U.S. sell millions of armaments to smaller countries; and even while controls on war have developed, weapons themselves have become more lethal, killing in more targeted ways.
A third example of a paradigm shift is in the COVID-19 pandemic. Formerly, science and industry needed two years or more to create, carefully test, and mass produce a new vaccine. However, in the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, scientists, and manufacturers throughout the world have made dramatic, emergency-era changes in this slow process. Early vaccine candidates are being tested already. And even if a COVID-19 vaccine still takes two years, there has been a paradigm shift in how science, industry, and governments attempt to produce vaccines faster. This also likely will lead to faster development of government-sponsored programs to find a super-vaccine that will work against most or all dangerous viruses. Civilization is learning to work differently on pandemics in emergencies that threaten the world.
As you read this chapter, you may want to consider what--if anything--do disasters do to change the way people see their lives and life them. How, for example, do you see "paradigm shifts" in how people think and act around you in our current disaster? And as you read this chapter, what parallels can you see between the changes that are happening now and the changes that happened in past disasters?
What's in the rest of this chapter?
Next is a brief history of the disasters themselves. It expands on the brief history given in the previous chapter about "Society and Disasters." The history below is not meant to cover everything, but rather to give you a selective taste--a brief dance with--some of the major disasters the world has experienced. It offers generally available facts about which most historians agree. The five remaining sections of this chapter are as follows:
Pandemic (World Illness)
As you read about these disasters, you will discover that the history of society and civilization on our planet is not an ever-upward moving line of advancement and improvement. Rather, the line of development is more jagged, swinging up and down, sometimes briefly and sometimes for long periods. The facts suggest that, overall, humanity is getting better, smarter, and more advanced. However, the swings downward sometimes can have plunges. See for yourself, below, how you think the world has done in the past and is doing today. Where are we headed in terms of disasters?
Disclaimer: In addition, please note that the information here primarily
is from generally accepted knowledge. Almost no sources have been named because the
information here is generally understood by most historians as being fact, except where noted.
Climate Change--Dinosaurs, Volcanoes, and Dark Ages
Some of the biggest changes the earth has seen have involved climate changes. Sometimes the birth of a climate change is sudden, such as when an asteroid hits the earth, or a large volcano or series of them have major eruptions. However, slower climate changes, sometimes developing over centuries or millennia, have occurred, sometimes causing major ice ages to gradually develop and sea levels to drop slowly but deeply, plunging the entire world into lower temperatures; or causing major warming on earth, leading to melting of glaciers and the icecaps, and rising sea levels.
The climate change that killed the dinosaurs
The most recent major climate change was about 66 million years ago. It is called the Cretaceous-Paleocene extinction event, as mentioned above, because it led to the extinction of about 80% of all animal species on earth. This event was caused by an asteroid or comet five to ten miles wide or larger hitting the earth. The explosion was the equivalent of millions of nuclear bombs. It created a crater over 90 miles (145 kilometers) wide near modern-day Chicxulub, Mexico, gale- or hurricane-force winds that flattened forests for up to 600 to 1200 miles (960 to 1920 kilometers), and tsunamis 150 to 1000 feet (50 to 300 meters) in height along southern and central North American coasts. Almost 50,000 cubic miles of sediment--equivalent to 83 million square miles of sediment that was, on average, one yard deep--from the asteroid or comet and from the impacted earth--were distributed especially in the area of the impact, and also throughout the world as a detectable layer of soil.
This Chicxulub Asteroid, as it is called, threw into the air billions of pounds of fine dust particles that, in a few weeks, hovered in the air throughout the world, darkening the sun for decades, creating a worldwide, decades-long winter that killed plants and starved animals. Almost all dinosaurs and all other animals weighing more than about 50 to 60 pounds died. Oceans and lakes also were terminally damaged, poisoned by the high acidity of the dust falling into them for years, which killed the majority of marine life. This sudden climate change set the earth back literally millions of years, and required a recovery of millions of years more.
If you find yourself worrying that a large asteroid might hit the earth again, you probably can relax for two very good reasons. First, the odds of this happening in a person's entire lifetime are, on average, 1 in 800,000 or better: very good odds. Second, astronomers have developed asteroid-spotting software programs that search space so no large asteroids can catch the world unaware. Methods of destroying such an asteroid were featured in two science fiction movies released in 1998, Deep Impact and Armageddon (with astronomers reportedly saying the first is more scientifically accurate), and scientists already are developing programs to help redirect an asteroid, if necessary.
Climate changes from volcanoes
However, smaller climate-change disasters have happened with some regularity and still can, in the future, whether from a supervolcano, a small asteroid (which astronomers say are harder to spot), or a gradual warming of the earth such as is happening now. They have happened in the geologically recent past.
The births of these smaller climate changes sometimes have been quick, and sometimes slow. A rare supervolcano (a volcano so powerful its eruption affects world climate)--the Toba supervolcano--erupted about 70,000 to 75,000 BCE (BC), throwing so much debris into the air that a worldwide temperature drop of about 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) probably occurred for up to ten years, leading, most likely, to an ice age on earth that lasted up to 1000 years. This event also may have reduced the total population of humans to under 10,000 worldwide.
Recently Joseph McConnell of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada and other collaborators may have discovered a connection between the assassination of Julius Caesar in 42 BCE (BC) and the explosion of the Okmok Volcano 6000 miles away in Alaska's Aleutian Islands in 43 BCE. Debris thrown out by Okmok may have lowered temperatures for a brief time by as much as 13.3 degrees F. (7.3 C.) in parts of the Mediterranean Sea area in which Rome and Italy lie. Records at the time indicate major crop failures, food shortages, and famines around that time. Some areas may also have experienced flooding from up to four times more rain, according to the research team. After Julius Caesar's assassination, the Roman Republic soon became the royally-ruled Roman Empire. Though social unrest certainly helped cause this major change, famine in parts of the country and the other countries it controlled may have contributed to the political change, as well.
Two similar but smaller climate winters occurred in the 1800s. The first was known as the "Year without Summer" in 1816, after an 1815 volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia, the largest in at least 1300 years. Summer temperatures throughout the world dropped slightly, but Europe was hit particularly hard with a summer of 6 degrees F. (3.5 C.) lower than normal, creating major food shortages for both humans and animals that led to illness and death.
The second occurred because of the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in modern-day Indonesia, which was heard 2000 to 3000 miles away. The eruption decimated its own and other islands around it, killed over 36,000 people, and led to a worldwide drop in temperatures of 2 degrees F. (1 degree C.). Though scientists aren't perfectly sure of the cause, the four winters after the explosion were, worldwide, longer and colder than usual, thus requiring later planting and earlier harvesting of food.
Did a "No-Sun Disaster" start the Dark Ages?
However, according to recent speculation by researchers, one of the most notable climate changes in recorded human history may have occurred starting in 535 or 536 and lasted, as a disaster (or cause-and-effect series of them), for up to 1000 years. This was a disaster of having no sun, or what we might appropriately name the "No-Sun Disaster." It likely was caused by an unusually large volcanic eruption in Iceland. The eruption darkened the sun throughout the world for one to two years, and contributing to or even causing other disasters--major migrations, wars, and plagues--that led to the Middle Ages or Medieval Period.
The birth of this climate change was relatively sudden, happening at first over a few days' or weeks' time, in 535 to 536 CE. One theory is that it was caused by a supervolcano or a group of volcanoes near each other in Indonesia. A more recent theory is that the change was caused by a supervolcano in Iceland. This "No-Sun Disaster" caused such a large amount of debris--many cubic tons--to fly into the air and hang in fine-particle suspension that, for about eighteen months throughout much of the world, the sun grew very dim. Roman historian Procopius, in a 536 CE (AD) report, said that "during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness...like the sun in eclipse."
Similar descriptions exist from other parts of the world. Snow was reported to have fallen in desert areas, crops in large portions of the world failed, and inches of dust settled in many areas. Massive floods struck some places, others saw severe drought, and some regions experienced both. Tree-ring analysis shows that in many parts of the world, tree growth stopped or slowed for a decade or more.
As a result, crops failed worldwide. Millions of people starved. Starvation and other related changes (see "Illness" below) displaced millions of people throughout Asia, who migrated into western Asia and eastern Europe, bringing invasive war with them as they came. Turks, Huns, Persians, Slavs, and others moved--during the following three decades--westward in mass migrations and invasions. The West and its dominant Roman Empire, grew weaker from these new invasions, having already suffered previous invasions for four hundred years.
The worst effect of the "No-Sun Disaster" is that it may have triggered two centuries of waves of bubonic plagues, one after another, throughout much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. As agricultural produce disappeared in many places, rodents also had trouble surviving. According to David Keys, author of Catastrophe, a book about the "No-Sun Disaster," the rodents began gathering in places where more grain existed: cities with ports and grain storage bins for shipping. some of the rodents followed the grain right on and into the ships. Unfortunately, the rodents were carrying fleas that were infected with the bubonic plague virus. As grain was shipped throughout the Roman Empire from African ports or Asian trade routes to the port city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, the fleas and bubonic plague went with it.
Emperor Justinian himself caught the plague. He recovered, but Constantinople, the thriving commercial and political center of the Empire, was devastated, as was the rest of the Roman Empire. In that first outbreak alone, up to 25 million died worldwide, and within two centuries 50 to 100 million were dead. More about this plague is detailed directly below in the section "Pandemics and Other Plagues."
Between the lack of sun for agriculture, the resulting further movement of millions of barbarian hordes west and south, and the continuing cycles of the bubonic plague, much of the world suffered a slow-moving but thorough and devastating disaster or series of interconnected disasters, one after another. This combination, theorizes Keys and others, may have been the focus--the forces--that caused history's Middle Ages: up to 1000 years of backward or non-advancing culture and civilization in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and possibly in the Americas, too. A person might wonder how different the world would be now if the supervolcano eruption that caused the 535 to 536 No-Sun Disaster had not happened.
Other smaller, local climate events also can be disasters for a community or a geographic area. For example, in 2003, a European heat wave killed over 70,000 people. And in 2010 a Russian heat wave killed more than 50,000. These are just parts of an overall pattern of increasing heat throughout the world. Most people believe we are at the start of some kind of climate change on earth right now, though there are still disagreements, especially among politicians and businesspeople, about how quickly it might come, how severe it will be, and what is causing it.
Climate-change paradigm shifts
Do climate changes cause paradigms shifts--changes in how people think, feel, and live? You could argue that the 66 million BCE extinction event caused a paradigm shift for evolution on earth: dinosaurs might have developed into the most intelligent species on earth, especially as scientists have discovered that the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex may have been as smart as a chimpanzee. Smaller climate changes from nearby volcanoes or increases in glaciers cause people to have to rethink how they will farm, where they will live, and what fate and hope mean to them.
Bigger climate changes--like the No-Sun Disaster that helped start or expand the Middle Ages for up to a thousand years--caused almost all of the earth's civilizations living in the 500s to 600s CE to change their thinking about life: that life was much less full of possibilities, hopes, and dreams, and more an arena of the hard fate of extended suffering or sudden death. This reshaping of thinking caused similar changes in thought among the religions of the world, a greater distrust of science and other intellectual and artistic endeavors, and, perhaps, the more rapid or thorough spread of the slave to like political system of world feudalism.
This reshaping of thinking also might have caused a reshaping of the contrasting Renaissance events throughout parts of the world hundreds of years later. The Renaissance of thinking and culture may have appear more sudden, brighter, dramatic, and hopeful than if the change had simply been slow and steady throughout the lost centuries that were, instead, the Middle Ages before it.
Pandemics--Plagues and the 1918 "Spanish" Flu
Another type of major change involves widespread illness. When it involves the entire world, this is called a "pandemic."
How do pandemics start?
Right now, in fact, we are living with such a pandemic and its results: the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19, like the great majority of pandemics, was born--according to most researchers--in a transfer of the illness from animal to human. In this case it occurred in or near the Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly in a marketplace. Similar coronaviruses exist in Kunming, China in bats, so a bat possibly transferred the COVID-19 virus to another animal that then was sold in the marketplace as a pet or for food. Quite possibly humans contracted it in November 2019 or even earlier, but it was not identified in humans until December.
This pandemic was called, at first, a "rich man's disease" because it first spread primarily from people on jet airlines, private jets, and cruise ships, perhaps the first pandemic in history to start with the wealthy and spread to everyone. Throughout history, usually pandemics started among the poor, merchant ships, or soldiers.
Alternate theories of how it started, such as "pandemic as biological warfare," have been suggested. Biological weapons that can cause pandemics do exist: there are some major nations that keep infectious biological agents in live storage for such use. However, biological weapons, like nuclear bombs, usually are released only in the most extreme situations. Primarily, their existence--like that of nuclear bombs--is considered a defensive threat to keep other nations from using their own similar weapons. In addition, "pandemic as biological warfare" is unlikely in the current pandemic because the genetic material of COVID-19, say the great majority of world scientists, is highly likely to have come from an animal in China, first, and not from a biological-weapon storage facility.
The birth of pandemics often seems sudden, though scientists in the modern world could have predicted them, and often have done so, months or even decades in advance as a possibility, even if these same scientists could not predict the exact type of sickness that would develop. The lifetime of pandemics in past centuries has been, sometimes, hundreds of years, though in more recent times scientists more quickly have learned how to limit most pandemics to a few years, sometimes less. The methods involve a mix of inventing new vaccines and other health preventatives and cures, and placing social limits on how, when, and where people may possibly expose themselves or others. The final death of a pandemic also can be sudden, especially if it is stopped by a vaccine, or it can be a long and drawn-out affair of many years, infecting and re-infecting populations in cycles.
We have no good idea of how many pandemics humans have faced since humanity's earliest times tens of thousands of years ago. There are legends that suggest their existence in prehistory. We know more about pandemics starting about 3000 BCE, the beginning of most recorded history. Since then, several series of plagues and other major illnesses have spread through civilizations, sometimes killing half or more of some countries' populations and emptying towns and even cities so completely that they became ghost towns where people feared to tread. One of the worst of these pandemics was the bubonic plague mentioned above that spread for two centuries in wave after wave beginning about the same time as the No-Sun Disaster.
The Black Death in Europe
Another terrible pandemic was the Black Death of 1347 to 1666 in Europe. Also known as the Pestilence or Great Plague, it killed 30% or more of Europe's population in waves of infection and re-infection for over three hundred years. It, too, was bubonic--named from the "bubols" or painful swellings of infected lymph nodes in several parts of the body that caused those who were infected to die often torturous deaths. The Black Death may have spread initially from China along merchants' travel routes--from fleas moving back and forth between humans and rodents. The types of rodents carrying bubonic-plague fleas vary according to geographic areas, but in Europe's plagues the rodent carriers usually were common rats. The rats moved throughout the continent carrying their infected fleas, which jumped to human hosts. All three infected groups--rats, fleas, and human hosts--usually died, but not before infecting others through more fleas or, on occasion, through breath in close contact.
In more recent centuries, since about the 1600s to 1700s, modern science began to help people avoid, and eventually inoculate against, illnesses such as bubonic plague, smallpox, and other pandemic illnesses. As a result, death rates from pandemics have decreased.
The "Spanish" Flu Pandemic of 1918 to 1920
Still, they continue. Another example of a more recent pandemic was the 1918 "Spanish Flu" epidemic. It may have been the second biggest pandemic killer in earth's recorded history, in part because earth's population had grown so much compared to earlier historical periods. The Spanish Flu infected up to 500 million people in the world during a three-year period, with the first year being the worst. At the time, this was about one-third to one-fourth of the world's population. Record keeping was poor; however, researchers estimate the 1918 Spanish Flu killed between 15 and 100 million people throughout the world, or from 1.5% and 5% of those who caught it. In contemporary terms, this Spanish Flu death rate is somwhat similar to (or higher than) the current world- and U.S.-science organizations' projections for a COVID-19 death rate of 0.5% to 4%, depending on whether a country is wealthy with excellent health care or poor with very little health care.
Manipulation of the news media caused this 1918 to 1920 flu pandemic to be labeled, unfairly, the "Spanish Flu." This happened because, at the time, World War I was raging in Europe.
As a result, many countries' politicians repressed news of the spreading flu in all of their countries because, they believed, it would be hard on the wartime morale of their fighting forces. However, Spain was neutral, and its politicians allowed much freer discussion in newspapers about the developing pandemic. Because of this, when people around the world began talking about the pandemic, they repeated what they had heard about it in Spain. What was the real source? Historians don't know. The first official record of it was among soldiers stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, who may have spread it to Europe through troop transport ships to the World War I European war theater. However, historians have pointed out that other European countries Chinese workers sent to work in eastern Europe in 1918 could have had the first cases.
The first wave of the 1918 flu pandemic caused relatively few deaths in the spring. In summer, it subsided.
However, when the second wave hit in late summer and in fall 1918--and with the world still at war--people were taken by surprise. It was devastating. It spread quickly everywhere simply from sneezing, talking, shaking hands, or touching the same object. Unfortunately, just when social distancing should have begun, most cities and countries ignored the need for it. There were four main reasons: (1) the first wave in spring had not been so bad, (2) soldiers had to live in such close quarters and be transported in crowded Atlantic Ocean troop ships and land vehicles, (3) families everywhere, in 1918, were larger, multigenerational, and in smaller housing, and (4) politically, leaders felt it unwise to talk about it, as they did not want to discourage soldiers' and citizens' morale during war.
Philadelphia, for example, held a large wartime "liberty" rally in September 1918 with tens of thousands in attendance. Within two weeks, a thousand more Philadelphians were dead, and two hundred thousand sickened. At about the same time, St. Louis, on the other hand, closed public places and forbade public gatherings early in the crisis. The result was it suffered one-eighth of the casualties of Philadelphia.
In addition, in 1918, medical care was inadequate and too slow, especially when the the second wave struck in the fall. Most doctors and nurses were at the war front, helping the injured and dying. Hospitals at home, no matter what country, didn't know what to do. People died quickly: within a day or two, sometimes just hours, of first getting sick. The Spanish Flu struck everyone, from youngest to oldest, equally, or perhaps even hitting people the hardest who were in their 20s.
Schools were closed and converted to temporary hospitals. Bodies piled up in towns and cities, and as social distancing began and people lost their jobs, many people got new jobs carrying bodies and burying them. In some cities, the dead had to be buried in large trenches in quickly built cheap wood coffins built by the thousands. Some municipalities even had a problem with coffin thefts and had to hire guards overnight to keep the inexpensive coffins safe. Some cities and towns ignored the pandemic but then suffered much higher casualties as a result. Others took power into their own hands to slow the spread. Some towns even posted signs outside of them, on the highways leading into them, telling people not to stop in their town. This helped in some places; in others, distancing was too little or too late.
The Spanish Flu was a viral flu--i.e., from a virus, like COVID-19 or the common cold. It was not from bacteria, which can cause similar illnesses.
At first, unfortunately, researchers thought the Spanish Flu was, in fact, bacterial, so researchers and doctors wasted months, at first, trying out a bacterial vaccine and related remedies. None worked. One new remedy that was tried--in unusually large doses--was a new drug in 1918 called "aspirin." Though aspirin since has proven helpful for several medical problems, the large doses given to Spanish Flu victims may even have caused more deaths.
In 1918, researchers did not yet know very much about viruses. A virus typically is smaller than a bacterium, sometimes only 1/20th the size, and seeing a virus in the microscopes of those times was nearly impossible: the necessary electron microscope wouldn't come into use until the 1930s. As a result, viruses were partly still just a theory to medical researchers. Researchers did know the basic facts about vaccinating. However, the science of creating a vaccine for a specific virus--not to mention large-scale production of vaccines for an entire country or the world--was not available until the late 1940s.
As a result of all these causes and problems, the dying continued. People everywhere tried folk medicines and other gimmicks. Some religious leaders claimed the Spanish Flu was God's punishment, and as a result, thousands even tried spiritual cleansing of their sins to protect themselves. Many people in Europe and America believed that the combination of the earth's first "World War" and the worldwide flu, Armageddon or the End of the World, taught in several world religions, might be at hand.
The worst of the epidemic peaked at about the same time as World War I ended on November 11, 1918. After that time, deaths decreased as the most immune survived, as did those who had caught it and had gained immunity. Some historians believe that the virus mutated into less lethal forms; others theorize that medical treatment for the side effects of the flu may have kept more people alive. And, of course, social distancing in some cities, if not engaged too late, helped.
In any case, the inner societal cohesiveness in each nation on the winning side of the World War was much dimmed from both the losses of war and the flu pandemic. Both, together, managed to severely sidetrack--basically, to wreck--the economies of these nations, with a mild world recession immediately after the war, followed by a major decession of eighteen months, often called the World Depression of 1920 to 1921.
The economies of some of the countries that lost World War I were hurt even more, and did not recover for many years more. All of this economic woe was caused by two major historical disasters: World War I and, to some lesser but still important extent, the Spanish Flu.
The 1952 to 1954 Polio Epidemic and Other Diseases
Even more recently in 1952, the U.S. suffered a serious attack of an ancient disease, polio. The epidemic started with lower numbers in 1950. But it became more widespread in 1952 and began to cause significant social changes when iIt infected about 60,000 people, permanently paralyzing about 20,000 and killing 3000. In 1953 and 1954, another 73,000 were infected. It struck children especially viciously, leaving many of them paralyzed for life. Parents kept their children home during the summers. In 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk tried a vaccine he had invented on himself and his family to prove it was safe. It worked.
In 1954, the Salk Vaccine was mass produced, saving lives throughout the world. Now polio is almost entirely eradicated from the world.
Modern pandemics are unlikely to kill as large a percent of the population as did many historical epidemics. However, killer diseases such as Ebola, hantaviruses, HIV, and even other deadly versions of the flu stalk parts of the world. Epidemiologists--medical professionals who study disease and pandemics--warn us that a rapidly mutating strain might loose itself upon the world.
And even milder pandemics such as the COVID-19 event, involving hospitalization or death of a smaller percentage of the population, so far, than the 1918 Spanish Flu, can be bad enough to send a country, a continent, or the entire world into financial recession or depression. And this, in turn, has lasting effects on society and culture that can alter, sometimes dramatically, the history and future of our civilization.
Pandemic paradigm shifts
What paradigm changes do pandemics create? Often there are scientific advancements simply because science--and sometimes the general public--understand that scientists have the best knowledge and are able to use the greatest number of experiments or surveys to better understand how to stay alive and well.
Socially, pandemics create paradigm changes similar to those in most disasters. At first, inevitably, a society will have less trust in the normality and safety of life. Fatalism--the belief that you cannot avoid the suffering that life brings to you--becomes pronounced.
However, unlike climate disasters in which everyone suffers from the same climate conditions, in pandemics there are winners and losers, those who die and those who survive. This difference creates a paradigm shift in how people perceive others--whether to trust or not trust them--and also in how people may decide to fight the disease, either by copying what survivors do or by isolating themselves from others. Such changes also create deep divisions in a society as people develop emotionally stronger reasons–rational and irrational–for why some survive and some don't.
One especially noticeable paradigm change in pandemics is the quality of human closeness. Most societies consider human companionship and physical touching necessary and, often, important.
However, in pandemics, physical closeness either is destroyed or takes on a more fatal association. Children stop playing with each other, families gather less, and social relationships in public dissipate. In the great plagues of history, there are stories of families forced to leave loved ones behind, dying in their beds without comfort, to flee the illness in their houses. Suicides and mercy killings increase. People--sometimes even entire religions--begin to think of physical touch as evil. Those who do continue to congregate in close quarters become increasingly fatalistic in their understanding of life and death.
Touching, everyone realizes, could cause death to one of the touchers or someone else close to them. This changes how people think and feel emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
Great Wars as Disasters--A History of Marching to Death
A third major type of disaster on earth is war. It is not a natural disaster but rather a human-made one, and certainly it is a disaster for a country on the losing side of it. Sometimes wars are crises for the victor, too, either because there has been mutual destruction in both territories, or because the conquerors have depleted their resources so much that they are themselves significantly weakened. For example, after World War I, both conquerors and conquered experienced an economic recession, and then a major economic depression destroying the jobs of millions, over a three-year period.
Most wars start with what may seem to most of those living through them as a sudden birth. This is because few countries choose to go to war, and when they do, even those who knew a war probably was coming will tell you that knowing about it and actually experiencing it are quite different. War kills people, even if the war theater is in a different land. That threat of death alone--along with all of the economic and labor-intensive resources required to wage a war--create important physical, emotional, and psychological changes for participating societies, especially for those who are attacked.
Likewise, many wars are
relatively brief by the standards of history's slow movements--often just a few
years. And their ending often may seem to a society to happen
somewhat abruptly, coming finally when one of the combatant sides decides it
can take no more punishment, or it is overwhelmingly invaded.
However, historically, some major wars have lasted for decades or even a
century, with quick births but very long lives that grind down both opponents.
Many great wars have occurred in the world. One of the first "world wars"--because it covered parts of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa--was the series of conquests by the legendary Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BCE).
Alexander was a bright scholar-athlete who was a hero to his soldiers and a master war tactician. The son of the King of Macedon, he studied under the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle and then became one of the greatest commanders of armed forces the world has ever seen. He conquered what then was civilized Europe (Macedonia and Greece), northern Africa (Egypt), and the Middle East as far as the western part of India. He installed democracies, freed slaves, and furthered education and the arts in most places; however, his soldiers and the immediate rulers he left behind likely killed--including deaths of his soldiers themselves--an estimated 100,000 to 1 million. The latter figure seems high to some historians; however, if you add all the deaths from the many civil wars against his empire that broke out right after his unexpected death at the age of 32, a figure of 1 million deaths may be reasonable.
Two hundred years later, Julius Caesar, 100 to 44 BCE, waged war on Gaul (modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy) and other countries. Caesar himself claimed he killed two million people in fifty battles to expand and secure the Roman Empire.
War from 1 CE (AD) to 1900 CE (AD)
After Caesar, as the Roman Empire weakened, barbarian armies--and, sometimes, hordes of barbarian families displaced by climate change--invaded it. From 100 to 500 CE, hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens and invading barbarians, perhaps many more, were killed. Often it was difficult to tell what killed more people: battle, starvation, or the many illnesses and plagues that befell barbarians and Roman citizens alike after these wars.
In the Middle East, the birth and rise of Islam created a new Muslim Empire that initially sought diplomatic relations and agreements about power sharing with the Roman Empire that had then centered itself in Constantinople, and with other empires near the Muslim Middle East. However, these non-Muslim empires usually refused. So dramatic was the Roman Empire's refusal, for example, that the Roman Emperor simply had the diplomatic party killed and their bodies thrown out of Constantinople.
The Muslim Empire then went to war with the Roman Empire and others from Muhammad's death in 632 to about 1000 CE (AD). Islam carved out an ever larger empire in the Middle East, northern Africa, and parts of southern Europe such as Spain, much of which was Islamic from the sixth through the fourteenth centuries.
In the Medieval Ages, Islamic civilization considered itself superior to Christian culture in the countries controlled by Islam. However, in these Islamic countries, Christians and Jews often were allowed more rights and freedoms than did Muslims in Christian countries. In addition, the Islamic cultures prized learning and other aspects of culture more highly than did many Christian countries. As a result, Islamic countries in Medieval times tended to provide higher levels of civilization. In fact, most historians agree that high Islamic culture was one of the major contributors to the West's Renaissance.
Islam also declared that Muslims and conquered Christians and Jews (and, later, Zoroastrians) were all "People of the Book." The "Book" they referred to was the Bible. In Islam, parts of the Old Testament are considered early scripture. And the Old Testament also contains what Jews call the Torah, which is a sacred scripture to them. All three of these major religions are united, according to Islam, as People of the Book: all three have the same person who founded their early religions, Moses; all three have similar rites from Old Testament days, and all three have the early books of the Bible in common.
In fact, Muslims believed that in uniting parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe, they were bringing a higher culture and more knowledge together for the greater good of more people in the world. This belief was similar to that of Alexander the Great as he conquered vast areas of three continents a thousand years earlier.
However, later, medieval Christian Europe would converge--under calls from the Holy Roman Popes--on the ideal of recapturing the Holy Land, leading to eight Holy Crusades against Islam for almost three hundred years, 1096 to 1271. Estimates say that only one in twenty of the European soldiers and knights even reached the the Holy Land to fight, and overall, over 1.5 million people died or were killed in the Crusades.
Many other expansive wars were fought after Caesar's time through the Middle Ages in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many tens of millions died in wars, the starvations they caused, and the indirectly related bubonic plagues causing wave after wave of deadly infections for hundreds of years. The Moorish War in northern Africa, for example, killed 5 million or more in 534 to 548, which was about the same time as the beginning of the No-Sun Disaster.
In eastern Asia, major wars and changes also occurred from the time of Caesar through the beginning of the Medieval Ages in the West. The Three Kingdoms War in China, 184 to 280 CE (AD) killed an estimated 36 to 40 million people. The An Lushan Rebellion in China and Vietnam, 534 to 548 (also near the start of the No-Sun Disaster) killed 13 to 36 million. Later in the Far East, the Chinese and Japanese especially may have created or rebuilt their empires, after the No-Sun Disaster and resulting bubonic plague epidemics, more quickly than in Europe and northern Africa. Still, though, much of their development also was held back by major wars. In China in 1616 to 1683, the Ming-Qing Transition of power cost 25 million lives. Later, in 1850 to 1864, the Taiping Civil War in China killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million individuals. And in nearby India and Bangladesh, the Mughal-Maratha Wars in 1658 to 1707 killed 5 million.
In central and western Asia, the combined Eurasian Mongol wars and conquests of 1206 to 1405 killed 38 to 60 million people, perhaps a majority from the plague that followed some of the armies. One noteworthy leader in this time and place was Timur of Central Asia: some historians consider him the greatest general of all time. He led his Turko-Mongol tribes using hordes of absolutely loyal soldiers and dozens of battle elephants, never lost a battle against his border-country opponents, and was ready to invade China, as big as the empire he himself had established, when he died unexpectedly. In his lifetime, he was responsible for the deaths of 8 to 20 million. If he had invaded China, his death toll likely would have been many millions higher.
In Europe, the Hundred Years' War between England and France, 1337 to 1453, killed 2 to 3 million people or more. Other religious and territorial wars continued in Europe, 1524 to 1763, killing 8 to 20 million. In Napoleon Bonaparte's French Wars against the rest of Europe in 1803 to 1815, 3.5 to 7 million were killed before Bonaparte was defeated and life began to return to normal.
Africa had mostly small wars. However, in 1815 to 1903, the Mfecane Chaos and Wars in the far south, along with the French Conquest of Algeria in the north, 1830 to 1903, led to 2 to 3 million killed.
Wars by Europeans in the Americas
Starting in the 1500s, the Spanish invaded the Americas. Spain had reunited as a Christian country in 1491 (a year before Columbus discovered America), and it was in an economic war with France, the Netherlands, and England to use the new ocean-spanning ships to create a world empire in foreign lands. Spain had already sent explorers (including Christopher Columbus); now it sent an army of 500 soldiers led by Hernan Cortes (also known as Cortez). When Cortes landed on the coast of what is now Mexico in 1520, he promptly burned his ships to impress upon his men that they were to go forward and conquer with no retreat possible.
As Cortes' soldiers invaded the Americas over the coming years, they managed to kill about 15 to 20 million Americans. These killings, in the first and subsequent Spanish invasions, took place primarily in the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico and the Mayan Empire in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, along with the Incan Empire in modern-day Peru. This total of 15 to 20 million killings came from two sources. One was battles, most of which involved handfuls of soldiers in mass slayings using guns against towns and cities that had no firearms and little for defense except spears and knives.
The other source of death to the natives was smallpox, which came from Europe with the Spanish soldiers. The natives had no natural immunity to this disease, which was new to them, so they died in such great numbers that crops went untilled and starvation set in among farmers and large numbers of Indians who traded goods for food. Their illness also made killing them in large numbers easier for the soldiers as they went from village to village.
(Some historians argue that another 10 to 17 million native people were killed by two Spanish-introduced epidemics about 25 and 55 years later. However, other researchers now suggest that these later epidemics were caused, instead, by an initial major North American climate change that caused local rat populations to infest native populations with what was then called an unnamed "pestilence," possibly hemorrhagic fever.)
If you are a North American, you may think that wars on North American soil have killed large numbers of soldiers, as well. However, by comparison (discounting genocide--see below), American wars have been minor. The American Revolutionary War killed about 37,000 soldiers. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 killed half a million to 1 million. In Latin America, the Paraguayan War, 1864 to 1870, killed a third of a million to 1 million. And the Mexican Revolution in 1910 to 1920, perhaps the worst of all in recent wars on North American soil, killed half a million to 2 million.
Altogether throughout the world, from the time of Julius Caesar to about 1900 CE (AD), a total of about 150 to 300 million people were killed by war. These figures don't even count most of the additional tens or hundreds of millions killed from war's ravaging results: starvations, plagues, and additional genocides. And the early part of the 1900s--the twentieth century--would add perhaps another 100 million to this count in just a 38-year period.
The World Wars of the 1900s
However, the greatest interruption of worldwide peace--and of local wars--arrived in the 20th century: World Wars I and II. The numbers of deaths soared compared to most previous wars on earth. Estimates vary, but in the two wars, probably 90 to 115 million soldiers and civilians died. Both wars were different from almost all others historically, and both world wars were similar to each other. They brought the full force of the new industrialization--assembly-line creation of millions of weapons and billions of bullets--to killing. They both extended to the entire world. And both of them were caused by many of the same types of political disagreements often involving many of the same countries. They also were connected by the Great Depression experienced throughout the world but especially in the conquered countries from World War I, thus helping further to cause World War II.
In the future, some historians may simply call these two wars, together, the World Wars of 1914 to 1945. This period in the first half of the 20th century was a time of worldwide upheaval in war. It had two episodes separated by a pause of only 21 years.
In World War I, 1914 to 1918, 21 million were killed; however, if you include the Spanish flu that was spread widely by WWI soldiers, the total then is about 30 million, conservatively, or arguably tens of millions more, as the flu spread from soldiers to many countries throughout the world. Could these additional tens of millions of deaths have been contained, or not happened at all, if there had been no world war? No one knows. Hard upon WWI was the Russian Civil War, which was partly a result or side effect of WWI: during 1917 to 1922, 5 to 9 million Russians died. The grand total of deaths in, from, or related to WWI was 35 to 40 million deaths worldwide, perhaps as many as 90 or 100 million deaths if you count the additional spread of the flu.
The second of the two wars was especially hard on civilians, as a total of up to 40 million of them were murdered in large groups and masses by industrial weapons of war--concentration camps with firing squads and, later, gas chambers; mass bombings killing tens of thousands in each air raid, resulting in many hundreds of thousands dead in such raids; massacres of villages and towns; the deployment of the atom bomb; and other mechanized mass methods of execution.
Nazi Germany and its group of European Axis countries killed 10 to 12 million people they classified as "unworthy of life"--and therefore without a right to live--in extermination camps. The single largest group killed in such camps included Jews. Other groups included communists, artists, the disabled, and political dissidents. An additional Nazi plan was to starve 30 million Russians by stealing all of their food as German forces invaded Russia. Though much of this plan was prevented by the Russians, who successfully turned back the invasion, Germany did starve a few million Russian prisoners of war, as well as several hundred thousand civilians in Leningrad (now called Petrograd). In fact, Russia bore the greatest death rate of any one country in World War II. It lost over 25 million soldiers and citizens.
In the Pacific theater of WWII, some three to ten million people were killed. This happened beginning with Japan's invasion of China in 1937 to its surrender in 1945.
Never in the world's history had so many civilians been slain so thoroughly, intentionally, and ruthlessly as in World War II. The total number dead in WWII may have been as high as 75 million direct deaths including both soldiers and civilians.
The total deaths from war over 2000 years of history thus total an estimated 250 to 400 million people. That is the same as if, every year for 2000 years, a small city the size of 125,000 to 200,000 people were completely obliterated from the map of the earth. That is the equivalent of 80 such cities being destroyed in a person's 80-year span of life. If the world kept pace with the average today, that would mean about10 to 16 million people on earth killed from war in your lifetime. And these figures don't even count most of the corollary or related deaths from starvation, extended-injury deaths, suicides, and epidemics that wars started, which would double or triple these numbers. Clearly, war has not been the exception--the unusual event--throughout history, but rather the norm in the developments, and reversals, of human civilization on earth.
War paradigm shifts
How do societies' thinking and feeling change in and immediately after war? The changes are very similar to the paradigm shifts mentioned at the end of the "Climate" and "Pandemic" sections above.
However, one particular paradigm shift happens in war. It is how an entire society begins to think of "the other," as sociologists refer to it. They mean how a whole society begins to think of its enemy as a dangerous, alien "Other": something to fear, avoid, and if needed, kill.
In this kind of thinking, the "Other" is no longer a curious or interesting culture different from yours. Instead, society and its leaders create an "us" and "them" of "friendlies" vs. "enemies." The friendlies are those who are on your own side. The enemies are on the other side. Rather than simply being seen as different, these enemies become vilified--or recreated as evil people: they are dehumanized. This means they are objectified--made into objects rather than living persons--who can be killed without needing to question whether it is acceptable, ethically or emotionally, to kill them.
The result of this paradigm shift is that instead of the world having one civilization of interesting equal humans, war causes a civilization of divided good and evil people, those deserving of life and those deserving of death. Some theorists argue that such thinking is necessary in order to encourage soldiers--and a society--to kill. Others argue that, at the least, a society needs to shed this paradigm quickly after a war. This quick re-shifting of this paradigm, they say, is necessay for all societies to then move forward productively. In either case, major social paradigm shifts of thinking occur, often quickly.
Genocides--the Wars that Continue
Another form of war, genocide, has in the long run suppressed even larger populations that the World Wars. Genocide likely has killed many more than has war because genocide can last for generations, even hundreds of years.
Genocides may seem to explode suddenly, but they may have hundreds or even thousands of years of development in hidden or barely suppressed racism, hatred, and competition between radically different social groups and countries. Their lifetime--this is worth repeating again--tends to be long, hundreds of years or more, as they often are a form of dislike and hatred that continues to simmer underneath the surfaces of societies even when those societies have made such dislike and hatred illegal.
As a result, most genocides also leave a lingering death. They seem, superficially, to die at a point when they become illegal in society. However, in reality, the resentments and underlying bigotry can take generations to be uprooted.
What is "genocide"?
What, exactly, is genocide? It is a type of long, drawn-out war wagered against a particular population, race, or unique culture. It has existed from long before historical records, as we have myths that describe genocides of entire races and peoples. However, only since the mid-1900s has the world given such acts their official name, "genocide." The word "genocide" means, specifically, the act of attempting to destroy an entire racial or cultural group of people by killing them physically, stealing or destroying their powers and knowledge, denying them their cultural and historical identity, or absorbing them by force into the dominant culture and its ways.
These methods of destroying a people or culture cause a profound physical, social, and psychological crisis not just for the immediate victims but for everyone who is a part of their society or culture: the minority group suffers death, slavery, and/or brainwashing along with many other nightmare conditions. But the majority group also suffers: it creates a social identity of denial, privilege, and unfair treatment, sometimes without consciously realizing what it is doing. As a result, all are damaged, and the society remains unstable or may become increasingly unstable.
Recent examples of genocide
The most obvious example known to most people in the West is the Holocaust during the World War II. In this Holocaust, Nazis led by Adolf Hitler took over Germany and then began invading countries around them. During those invasions, they committed genocide against--exterminated--6 to 12 million civilians in concentration camps, through firing squads, sometimes by starvation, and through other means. Another 30 million deaths by starvation were planned for "inferiors" in Russia alone, but this was thwarted when the Nazis lost the war. The majority of those exterminated in concentration camps were Jews, but others--artists, political dissidents, Gypsies, Communists, the disabled, et al.--also were exterminated in large numbers, all under the Nazi theory that they were inferior--not human or barely human--and were contaminating the master race of humans. If the Nazis had succeeded, we would have almost no Jews nor Jewish culture in Europe, and very few people in some of the other targeted groups.
The world has
seen many other genocides, as well. Throughout history, part or all of entire
civilizations have been wiped from the face of the earth. This continues in the
20th and 21st centuries. In 1914 to 1923, for example, the Armenian Holocaust in
western Asia saw
700,000 to 1.8 million Armenians mass executed or forced out of their villages and
towns primarily by Turkey.
An even more recent example of a genocidal war was was the likely long-planned, April-July 1994 Hutu-tribe government massacre of Tutsi tribal members in the Republic of Rwanda, Africa. 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis and their sympathizers were killed by machete and rifle in their towns and villages by soldiers, police, militia, and neighborhood gangs. About 70% of all Tutsis were eliminated. In addition, as many as 1/4 to 1/2 million Tutsi women suffered another weapon of war and genocide: rape, with the purpose of impregnating Tutsi women to create babies that were half-Hutu, thus watering down the bloodlines of Tutsis.
A current genocide--one still happening--is in the Asian country of Myanmar, bordered by Bangladesh and India on its west, and Thailand and China on its east. There, beginning slowly in 2012 but increasing in severity in 2017 to 2019, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed and over 500,000 forced to leave the country and their villages and homes burned by the Buddhist-majority government.
There also are much longer-term genocides. Among them are simple killings of hundreds of thousands, even millions over the decades. Cultures and societies throughout history have been so uncomfortable with the "other"--characterizing races and other people who appear to be different, act differently, or have different religions--that these "other" types have been labeled as inhuman, even as unthinking animals, worthy only of slaughter or slavery.
Some genocides are for financial gain: a dominant culture may decide that instead of killing people, they should be used instead for financial gain. This is how slavery often comes about. Like war, slavery, too, is a form of killing, but more slowly and, often, with longer torture both obvious and subtle. Like other forms of genocide, slavery has happened throughout history. For example, just in the past five hundred years, perhaps half a million to three million Europeans were enslaved in Africa and Asia Minor from about 1500 to 1780. A large number were white sailors or coastal-village Europeans captured by slave traders from Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco; and others by Istanbul’s slave imports captured from eastern European villages and ships on the Black Sea.
Genocide of African Americans
However, the Americas have borne the more recent, most obvious historical examples of genocidal slavery. This is the enslavement of Africans, mostly from west and central Africa, during the past five hundred years.
From the early 1500s to 1800s, more than 12 million African people were taken from their homes and chained into slavery, mostly in the Americas. About 1.5 to 2 million of them didn't even survive the trips: they died on slave ships. A quarter of these deaths were children. All slaves on the ships were chained like animals and closely crowded together with just enough room for everyone to lie down, side by side, or sometimes just enough room to sit in a crouch. Of the remaining 10 million who survived the journey, about 400,000 reached the United States, about 5 million were taken to Brazil, over 1 million to Jamaica, and most of the rest to other Caribbean countries.
These African slaves, upon reaching the Americas, were treated as large livestock for sale. After being sold, they usually were forced to give up everything from their cultures except a few "harmless" rituals. Their work was so brutal that most lived much shorter than average lives, especially field workers. In some parts of the Caribbean Islands, for example, the average field slave worked almost every day, sun up to sun down, was whipped for any infraction of rigid rules, and died of exhaustion, hunger, illness, or injuries after only five years.
In the United States, the number of slaves grew and spread across many parts of the country as female slaves were bred like cattle to have more children than did female European-Americans. The typical number of children for U.S. female slaves was nine to ten; in other countries in the Americas, the number was up to twenty children per female slave during their relatively short lifetimes. Even though importation of slaves was banned in the U.S. in 1809, by the year 1860 (just before the American Civil War) the population of African Americans had grown to over ten times the number initially brought to the U.S. Initially, 400,000 Africans were imported. By 1860, there were 4.4 million African Americans, 90% of them slaves. And the U.S.'s proportion of slaves had grown to what historians estimate as 50 to 60% of all slaves in the Americas.
Slavery was abolished during and immediately after the Civil War. However, even then the results of this genocide of African Americans continued in less visible ways.
For example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma between the Civil War and 1920, laws had allowed a neighborhood of African Americans known as Greenwood to become entrepreneurs of small businesses and create an economically and culturally successful Black community--the richest such community in America. However, on May 31, 1921, two misunderstandings started a riot. The first was probably a false accusation of rape against a Black man, and the second was an angry confrontation between a group of armed white men and armed Black men that resulted in the death of ten white men and two Black men. Then a white mob invaded Greenwood. During that day and the next, the mob killed, burned, and looted until the Oklahoma National Guard stopped the mob. The result was that an estimated 150 to 300 Black citizens of Tulsa lay dead, 800 or more were injured, and 10,000 Blacks were left homeless. There also was over $32 million in property damage (in today's dollars). The event came to be known as the Tulsa Race Riot. The community--and Blacks in Tulsa--never recovered.
Today most Black residents of Tulsa--and all of the U.S.--still live with the legacy of genocide. What started with the destruction of the culture and freedom of an entire race of people in the Americas through slavery morphed into severe racism, and then milder racism. But for Blacks in the U.S., this "mild" racism still is a potent aftereffect of genocide. African Americans--Blacks descended from slaves (most African immigrants do not call themselves African Americans)--throughout the U.S. are poorer on average and live shorter lives with worse health than European-Americans, and Blacks die, on average, four or five years earlier than European-Americans. This is due not just to poorer health but also to a higher rate of killings--by both criminals and police--than of whites. Such facets as these are how a genocide starts and continues in a long, drawn out ending that the U.S. has not yet succeeding in creating.
Genocide of Native populations
Another example of longer-term genocide is the killing and forced reeducation of the world's populations of Native, Aboriginal, or First People (as they are called in different countries). Examples abound throughout history and the geography of the world.
For example, in the Americas when Europeans first arrived four and five centuries ago, most Native American populations--some historians estimate up to 90 to 95% of all Native Americans at the time of arrival of Europeans--either were slain immediately or more slowly killed by the introduction of diseases new and deadly to them. Methods of eradication included simple mass killings in wars pitting white Americans' guns and cannons against Natives' spears and arrows; handing out measles-infected blankets, devastating to Native Americans, who had no natural immunities against the disease; and paying bounties--rewards--for Native scalps. The early colonists often held Native Americans in slavery for the colonies' economic advantages. And in the 1800s, the American southwest states often held Native Americans as slaves, even in parts of California after the Civil War.
In the United States, Indians were herded into increasingly smaller and less food-rich areas until they began to starve. When some of them resisted, whole tribes were slaughtered and the small remnant moved, often over hundreds of miles away, to even less inhabitable areas. Native Americans and westward-expanding Europeans represented a major clash of two very different cultures, worldviews, understanding of land and property, and understanding of nature and sustainability.
Efforts also were made by well-meaning Christians to help them. However, these efforts often resulted in programs in which Native American children were removed from their families and forced to adopt white-European culture, religion, and language, with physical and sexual abuse widespread.
Genocide of Mexicans and Other Hispanics
Similar patterns of cultural killing also were visited, later, on Latin Americans in southwestern U.S., who often had mixed Spanish-Native American backgrounds. These patterns of continuing genocide and racism increased especially after the 1846 to 1848 Mexican War.
In that war, the U.S. took, by armed conflict, about one-third of Mexico. That third became the part now known as U.S. Southwest. Unfortunately for Mexico, the war ended just a few years before the discovery of gold in California: if Mexico had been able to hold onto California, it would, today, be a much richer nation.
After the U.S. took over its new land acquisition of what is now the southwestern states, many former Mexican working-class and middle-class residents of their new country, because of their Mexican ancestry, were killed by hangings and shootings, chased off their land and starved, and forced into becoming poor second-class citizens. Some, like Blacks, were enslaved. Others, like Indians, were exterminated. In some cases, they were tortured. And large amounts of land passed in these states from the hands of Mexicans who had built their farms and ranches--sometimes over many generations and three centuries--to whites who chased them off their lands and then either established their own false ownership papers or sold the land to other whites.
Later, as Latin Americans from countries south of Mexico and from South America came to the U.S., they found existing patterns of racism visited upon them, too. They usually were grouped with Mexicans as undesirables.
Today, just as do Native Americans, many Latinos/Latinas continue to experience the long, drawn-out effects of what initially began as genocides. In this their experience is similar to that of African Americans and Native Americans culturally, economically, and in terms of health and longevity. For those against whom genocide is committed, a final, slow ending like this can take hundreds of years before a true resolution of healing is complete. In the U.S., this end has not yet arrived, especially when the U.S. is compared to many other first-world nations.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has a reputation among first-world countries for having one of the worst caste-system societies in the world. A caste system is like that in India where "Untouchables" are the lowest caste (and often darker), and the "Brahmins" or priests, scholars, and high leaders (often lighter) are highest. Other groups fall between them. India’s caste system technically has been illegal since 1948; however, it still exists in many subtle ways. Other infamous caste systems include the now-outlawed Apartheid system in South Africa, and the now-illegal, World War II, Nazi Germany Master Race system in which Nordic or Aryan people ruled and inferior races were killed, enslaved, or neutered economically and physically.
The dominant caste system in America, say most experts, is based especially on race and color. Blacks, Indians, Latino/as, and Asians are lower than whites. Even though this system, too, is illegal according to most American laws, favoritism toward whites exists in many economic, social, and cultural institutions. And the dominant race of whites often do not even know what these subtle barriers to full equality are.
Genocide paradigm shifts
However quickly some genocides may seem to come and go, their real birth lies in decades and even generations of building hate, and their real death can be long. As a result, the paradigms--central beliefs and ways of acting that work together to reinforce each other--can take an equally long time to develop and change.
The first paradigm shift in genocide usually is a quiet, at first almost invisible, shift from seeing all humans as equal to seeing them as the hated "other," as in war. For example, this might happen during childhood, or when immigrants enter a society and create more competition for jobs, or when an "alien" religion comes to the neighborhood. Political leaders may fan the hatred. As the hatred develops, a paradigm shift happens from equality to hatred. This often leads to prejudice and, at its worst, genocidal killing. It also can lead, with or without killing, to more subtle, long-term forms of earlier death from segregation creating unequal education, jobs, and health.
However, the worse these conditions become, the more they are noticed by others on both sides of the genocide divide. This causes another paradigm shift among some members of society: they move from lack of awareness of the problem to an increase in consciousness of the racism or genocide. This shift in awareness also causes a change in people's desire for action.
However, typically, even when the genocidal actions seem to stop, the part of the population committing the genocide simply halts its actions while continuing to believe that its actions were justified. This gradually creates yet another paradigm shift: a society emotionally divided against itself into three groups: those in power who accept the genocide, those in power who resist it, and those against whom the genocide was committed. These three positions create further divisions within the society, as each of the three groups continues to distrust one or both of the other two. This distrust then becomes, itself, a dominant paradigm in the society: the entire society experiences increasing levels of distrust and its accompanying doubt and anxiety.
Many genocidal patterns eventually resolve themselves. But it can take centuries. Darker skin colors, different religions, and misunderstood cultural ways among the "others" all lead--among some people in the dominant cultural group--to deep prejudice. The paradigm shift to a fully equal society never is perfect, but gradually some groups integrate. For example, in New York City in the 1800s to 1900s, wave after wave of immigrants came from overseas, and each in turn was met with prejudice, hatred, and violence. The Italians, the Jews, the Irish, and many others were met with hatred but now have integrated reasonably well. Newer immigrants--Asians, people of the Middle East, and Africans--are struggling. And old hatreds--for example, against Native Americans, African-Americans (mostly those Blacks whose ancestors came as slaves), and Hispanics--continue in New York City. But the legal paradigm in America of equality for all allows more people of color and different culture--if often very slowly--to find increasingly better jobs.
And better economic circumstances create a psychological and economic paradigm shift, itself. Financially empowered middle-class people in New York City--and in much of America--may have as much or more in common with each other, no matter their race, as they do with the countries from which their ancestors came.
Other Types of Disaster
Other types of disasters also deserve mention. Locusts, flies, lice, and frogs are among the plagues with which Moses threatened the Pharaoh of Egypt. Animal plagues like these are common.
A current example, happening how, is desert locusts that started in 2019 in parts of Africa. Desert locusts look like finger-length grasshoppers. They gather in swarms of hundreds of thousands or even millions, covering the ground and eating most plants in their path. In 2020, this African plague of locusts spread eastward to Pakistan and India. One average swarm of locusts can, in just one day, eat as much food as thirty to forty thousand people, and the swarm can travel as far as 100 miles in that one day. Now, in parts of all three countries, millions, perhaps billions, of locusts are breeding, eating and causing danger of starvation to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people.
Industrial accidents happen, too. One such local disaster occurred in 1984 in Bhopal, India. A toxic gas spill from a pesticide plant killed over 2000 people immediately and likely 15,000 or more during the next several years, and injured at least half a million more. Another industrial accident was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that likely killed 15,000 to 60,000 people over a period of years and contaminated 1000 square miles of farmland and villages with dangerous levels of radioactivity for decades.
Local disasters also occur to communities. For example, the city of Flint, Michigan is experiencing a crisis in its water supply that started in 2014 because of lead to to deadly to brain development in children--leaching in large quantities into many residents' water. Other communities experience widespread flooding from hurricanes or local dams breaking, events that sometimes kill hundreds or even, occasionally, hundreds of thousands of people.
Economic disasters also are common in the world. The Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 was perhaps the worst financial disaster since the beginning of industrialization. This depression started with millions of investors losing their money on Wall Street and spread throughout the world. In the United States alone, half of all banks had to close, unable to give depositors some or all of their money back, and the unemployment rate ran above 14% for years, peaking at about 25% in 1933. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, there also is a consequent economic disaster slowly unfolding that will affect the world for at least several years.
One experience that people discover when they go through a disaster together is that it seems to feel like an entity or person in itself: a person who is falling apart, whether from external or internal causes. This "person" or entity exhibits a birth in society and history, a life or period of activity as it continues, and its death or end, whether sudden or lingering. Because of this, a disaster can feel to people in the middle of it almost like a huge, malfunctioning, dangerous beast, as if it had its own biological being.
It is not a live beast, of course. However, the people at the center of a disaster--the society or civilization living and dying in it--do have a biological functioning as a group. In fact, a disaster often draws some parts of society closer together as a societal being--as a culture--because they need to cooperate with each other to find their way through the disaster. Disasters tend to make many human beings lay down their petty or less important disagreements to work together to solve the bigger problems. An excellent example of this is how people often work better together during a war, especially if they are the ones who have been attacked.
It is noteworthy that without such cooperation, a society more likely will have increasing problems. According to "revitalization movement theory" pioneered by Anthony F.C. Wallace, every lasting society is bound to have periods of time when changes are necessary. Wallace argues that societies that learn to adjust through cooperation are more likely to survive. If problems are particularly severe, then the need for cooperation is stronger, as well.
Excellent historical examples of revitalization movements are the founding and spread of most major religions. Almost every major religion, whether in the West or the East, changed its society in major ways. Each religion--as is typical in revitalization movements--had a leader who who felt the need for change in his country or societal group, and who came from within the people of that group who needed the change. Whether you start with the story of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, or others, usually you find a leader from within the starting group who has a clear concept of needed positive change. Each such leader, and each such religion, started with a society growing increasingly more dysfunction that, after adopting the religion, grew more functional in significant new ways. And these revitalization movements were responding, quite often, to major disasters or to situations that were becoming major disasters.
The same often can be said of major political, social, and cultural movements. For example, in the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, the country was strongly divided between two different visions. President Donald Trump and opponent and former Vice President Joe Biden were envisioned by many followers--both of them--as leaders of revitalization movements. Both of them offered grave warnings for the future and promises of great possibilities to make the U.S. better. Whether either is a true revitalization movement leader--or can create a revitalization movement--remains to be judged by future historians.
One problem societies often encounter in the middle of disasters is that sometimes there is not just one major crisis, but two or more at the same time. Simultaneous crises make revitalization more difficult and the need for cooperation greater. One example is what is happening in the world in the current year, 2020, as several crises occur simultaneously: a pandemic, increasing climate change, a worldwide economic recession, and--in the U.S.--a crisis about racism occurring on top of a major national election.
Other examples from the past include, for example, how in major climate changes, food becomes harder to grow, which can lead to pandemic illnesses and wars. In major pandemics, there can be an increase in tensions among differing elements of society leading to wars and genocides. And in wars, often there is also an increase in starvation, wider spread of illnesses, and more genocide.
This is one of the reasons why the word "disaster" has such a ringing sound of danger in the history of societies and civilizations. If you are living it yourself, you not only discover what it is like to live more constantly in worry and fear for your life (or how some people try to block out the problems by ignoring them), but also you learn how one disaster seems to mean multiple disasters become more possible.
And, according to revitalization theory, if your group has suffered a disaster, you also learn how badly cooperation is needed. In addition, you learn how difficult gaining such cooperation can be.
Finally, disaster is emotionally upsetting. It causes death, always a challenge for those who see it possibly coming for themselves or their loved ones. Even if death is not likely, there is fear among many people. And disaster also changes what is normal, which in itself can be a cause for worry and fear. However, disaster, when faced and dealt with in as positive and rational a way as possible--through appropriate cooperation and resulting revitalization--can be an opportunity for emotional growth and better well being for those who survive it: what won't kill you may help you.
By understanding disasters of the past, we can better learn cooperation and revitalization--and prepare for them ahead of time. There is absolutely no question that disasters happen. They are unavoidable. The world of humans is an imperfect one, and the world of nature and the cosmos sometimes is unpredictable. The COVID-19 disaster, for example, took the world by surprise. It is the worst disaster that the entire world has experienced since perhaps the end of the World Wars. We also have a new, developing disaster: climate change.
Millions of us throughout the world also have experienced smaller--but just as
painful and harsh--disasters in local regions and countries through war, the
continuing toll of short- and of long-term genocide, terrible localized
epidemics much worse than COVID-19, and even immediate and overwhelming
localized effects of the current climate change. Change is inevitable. However,
if we can examine our past
disasters, we can learn how to better cooperate and revitalize our human race
and our world--again and again--in the future.
1. Imagining the Worst: As an individual or in a small group, imagine that something bad happens to your group of friends, your community, or your town, city, or state. Make a rough outline or description of what this event would look like, how people would react, and how it would affect you personally. Then write a rough outline or description of how you might respond to the event negatively at first, and how you could, instead, respond to it positively.
2. How to Start a War: As an individual, what is the biggest disagreement you have ever had with another person? Or as a group, what is a major disagreement you easily could have with some other group that is very different from your own group? If you can't decide, then make up an imaginary disagreement. Then, whether you're working as an individual or as a group, write a few sentences summarizing the disagreement and the issues involved. Next, imagine that you are the political leader of a major country, and your opposition is the political leader of another nearby country. Write a few sentences summarizing the two of you as opponents, and then write a few sentences about each of the following: Which one of you might be inclined to start a war against the other first? Would you simply command the war to start, or would you first have to get the will of the citizens behind you, and either way, how would you do this? What would your first action be? What else would you plan? Which of you--you or your opponent--be most likely to end the war? Why and how, through utter defeat, a compromise, or what? What would be the likely results of the war in your opponent's country, and in yours? Finally, what might you have learned from this exercise?
3. Response to Epidemic: What would you do if an epidemic swept your community, and two or three members of your own family died? Who would most likely die, why, and how? How would you feel? How would you deal with it? How would others in your family deal with it? How would your friends and neighbors deal with it? Write a few sentences describing each of these. Or, if you are working in a group, create an imaginary family and then answer the same questions.
Surprising Death: Imagine a time 100-200 years in the future when humans
decide to colonize a moon of Jupiter or Saturn that can support life. We have
travelled to the planet by the hundreds and started using water from a great
ocean on the moon that is under a frozen crust. As we place our water pipes into
the ocean at a number of spots, we discover that some of the strange
"fish"--something like slimy octopuses--that are in the ocean are getting sucked
up and killed by the hundreds each month as we humans draw on the water from the
ocean. We consider saving the carcasses to eat but discover that they taste
terrible. After doing this for five years, our scientists suddenly discover that
not only can they communicate with the octopus creatures, but the creatures are
just as bright as we are in nonscientific ways and have developed whole
underwater villages and towns. For five years, we've been killing them. Imagine,
in several sentences each, what we should now say to them, what we should now do
about our water supplies and the killing of them, and what we should propose, if
anything, about working with them.
Recommended Movies and Readings, and Bibliography
See Chapter "7-D: Films and Readings on Disasters."
*Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims. Pierart dou Tielt (fl. 1340-1360) in The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352). Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. Photograph of miniature at http://balat.kikirpa.be/photo.php?path=X004175&objnr=20049662 , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64384803. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 7 Nov. 2020