Editor’s note: Proxy war and geopolitical jockeying are innate to superpower politics. The war in Ukraine is the direct result of NATO working to, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “control global energy systems, pipelines, and sea lanes,” and of Russia working to expand its imperial influence.
The prize is Ukraine: a wealthy country with massive reserves of oil and gas, minerals, and the most valuable agricultural land in Europe. Ukraine has been a trophy of empires for centuries. To imperialists, land is to be seized and controlled, not revered and respected. For more on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which dates back decades, check out this Green Flame episode from 2020 with Ukrainian-American anti-war activist Sergio Kochergin:
Putin is using the same playbook the United States has used for many years: claiming to be fighting for freedom and self-determination. And he, like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Obama, Trump, and Joe Biden, is a war criminal.
Now, as Russian protesters are thrown in jail and the U.S. warhawks beat the drums of intervention, the Ukrainian and Russian people and the whole planet will pay the price, and the threat of nuclear war hovers over the world once again. If NATO joins battle with Russia, nuclear strikes become a distinct possibility. The U.S. and Russian militaries have, between them, more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. The strategic doctrine of both call for nuclear options if a conventional war is going poorly.
Finally, we must note that death and destruction is not abnormal within civilization. Forty percent of all human deaths are premature and caused by pollution. Tens of millions die each year due to cars, global warming, mass starvation, and diseases of civilization. War is hell. Modern industrial civilization, dominated by capitalism and patriarchy, is itself a war on women, on the poor, on the planet, and on the future.
Aggressive wars, whether they are waged on nations or on the planet, and whether the weapons are bombs, politics, or bulldozers, are deplorable.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a near universal understanding among political leaders that NATO expansion would be a foolish provocation against Russia. How naive we were to think the military-industrial complex would allow such sanity to prevail.
by Chris Hedges / Counterpunch
I was in Eastern Europe in 1989 reporting on the revolutions that overthrew the ossified communist dictatorships that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time of hope. NATO, with the breakup of the Soviet empire, became obsolete. President Mikhail Gorbachev reached out to Washington and Europe to build a new security pact that would include Russia. Secretary of State James Baker in the Reagan administration, along with the West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, assured the Soviet leader that if Germany was unified NATO would not be extended beyond the new borders. The commitment not to expand NATO, also made by Great Britain and France, appeared to herald a new global order. We saw the peace dividend dangled before us, the promise that the massive expenditures on weapons that characterized the Cold War would be converted into expenditures on social programs and infrastructures that had long been neglected to feed the insatiable appetite of the military.
There was a near universal understanding among diplomats and political leaders at the time that any attempt to expand NATO was foolish, an unwarranted provocation against Russia that would obliterate the ties and bonds that happily emerged at the end of the Cold War.
How naive we were. The war industry did not intend to shrink its power or its profits. It set out almost immediately to recruit the former Communist Bloc countries into the European Union and NATO. Countries that joined NATO, which now include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia were forced to reconfigure their militaries, often through hefty loans, to become compatible with NATO military hardware.
There would be no peace dividend. The expansion of NATO swiftly became a multi-billion-dollar bonanza for the corporations that had profited from the Cold War. Poland, for example, just agreed to spend $ 6 billion on M1 Abrams tanks and other U.S. military equipment. If Russia would not acquiesce to again being the enemy, then Russia would be pressured into becoming the enemy. And here we are. On the brink of another Cold War, one from which only the war industry will profit while, as W. H. Auden wrote, the little children die in the streets.
The consequences of pushing NATO up to the borders with Russia — there is now a NATO missile base in Poland 100 miles from the Russian border — were well known to policy makers. Yet they did it anyway. It made no geopolitical sense. But it made commercial sense. War, after all, is a business, a very lucrative one. It is why we spent two decades in Afghanistan although there was near universal consensus after a few years of fruitless fighting that we had waded into a quagmire we could never win.
In a classified diplomatic cable obtained and released by WikiLeaks dated February 1, 2008, written from Moscow, and addressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NATO-European Union Cooperative, National Security Council, Russia Moscow Political Collective, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State there was an unequivocal understanding that expanding NATO risked an eventual conflict with Russia, especially over the Ukraine.
“Not only does Russia perceive encirclement [by NATO], and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests,” the cable reads. “Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene; a decision Russia does not want to have to face. . . . Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, expressed concern that Ukraine was, in the long-term, the most potentially destabilizing factor in U.S.-Russian relations, given the level of emotion and neuralgia triggered by its quest for NATO membership . . . Because membership remained divisive in Ukrainian domestic politics, it created an opening for Russian intervention. Trenin expressed concern that elements within the Russian establishment would be encouraged to meddle, stimulating U.S. overt encouragement of opposing political forces, and leaving the U.S. and Russia in a classic confrontational posture.”
The Obama administration, not wanting to further inflame tensions with Russia, blocked arms sales to Kiev. But this act of prudence was abandoned by the Trump and Biden administrations. Weapons from the U.S. and Great Britain are pouring into the Ukraine, part of the $1.5 billion in promised military aid. The equipment includes hundreds of sophisticated Javelins and NLAW anti-tank weapons despite repeated protests by Moscow.
The United States and its NATO allies have no intention of sending troops to the Ukraine. Rather, they will flood the country with weapons, which is what it did in the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.
The conflict in the Ukraine echoes the novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the novel it is acknowledged by the narrator that “there had never been a death more foretold” and yet no one was able or willing to stop it. All of us who reported from the Eastern Europe in 1989 knew the consequences of provoking Russia, and yet few have raised their voices to halt the madness. The methodical steps towards war took on a life of their own, moving us like sleepwalkers towards disaster.
Once NATO expanded into Eastern Europe the Clinton administration promised Moscow that NATO combat troops would not be stationed in Eastern Europe, the defining issue of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations. This promise again turned out to be a lie. Then in 2014 the U.S. backed a coup against the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who sought to build an economic alliance with Russia rather than the European Union. Of course, once integrated into the European Union, as seen in the rest of Eastern Europe, the next step is integration into NATO. Russia, spooked by the coup, alarmed at the overtures by the EU and NATO, then annexed Crimea, largely populated by Russian speakers. And the death spiral that led us to the conflict currently underway in the Ukraine became unstoppable.
The war state needs enemies to sustain itself. When an enemy can’t be found an enemy is manufactured. Putin has become, in the words of Senator Angus King, the new Hitler, out to grab the Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. The full-throated cries for war, echoed shamelessly by the press, are justified by draining the conflict of historical context, by elevating ourselves as the saviors and whoever we oppose, from Saddam Hussein to Putin, as the new Nazi leader.
I don’t know where this will end up. We must remember, as Putin reminded us, that Russia is a nuclear power. We must remember that once you open the Pandora’s box of war it unleashes dark and murderous forces no one can control. I know this from personal experience. The match has been lit. The tragedy is that there was never any dispute about how the conflagration would start.
This first appeared on ScheerPost.
Editor’s Note; The fossil fuel industry is largely responsible for the climate crisis we are in today. The following article highlights the current state of the climate crisis.
While we believe that the fossil fuel industry needs to be stopped, DGR does not believe that “green” energy is going to save the planet. We believe that the green energy industry is just an extension of the ‘traditional” energy industry, running with the same disregard for the natural world.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Thom Hartmann/Earth | Food | Life
You may remember the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which large parts of Europe and the American East Coast suddenly freeze up?
The plot device is that the Great Conveyor Belt—also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—which brings heat from the south Pacific around the southern tip of Africa and up the east coast of the Americas (we call it the Gulf Stream) into the North Atlantic and Europe shuts down.
The AMOC and the heat it brings to the North Atlantic ocean is the main reason why London (at the same latitude as Calgary) has a relatively temperate climate year-round, instead of being snowbound six months out of the year.
It’s why Europe can grow enough food to feed its 740+ million people; if the AMOC was to stop transporting all that heat to the North Atlantic, the continent could be plunged into famine in a matter of years or decades (the movie was heavily dramatized).
The IPCC has warned of this possibility but had placed the danger zone for the failure of the AMOC in the early 22nd century, well past the lifetimes of most people living today. That proclamation moved it off most of our immediate-attention screens.
Now, however, might be a good time to watch the movie again: a new study published in Nature Communications last week titled “Warning of a Forthcoming Collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation” reports that global warming forced by all the CO2 and methane in our atmosphere—if we don’t do something immediately—could shut down the AMOC as early as 2025 and almost certainly before 2095.
This adds to a growing body of alarming climate science, like the one published last year in the Journal of Climate titled “Sixfold Increase in Historical Northern Hemisphere Concurrent Large Heatwaves Driven by Warming and Changing Atmospheric Circulations,” which indicates we’re much farther down the path of dangerous climate change than even most scientists realized.
That study essentially predicted this year’s shocking Northern Hemisphere heat waves (with more and worse to come); the lead researcher’s first name is Cassandra, no doubt an unintentional choice in the paper’s authors’ pecking order, but still.
Perhaps most alarming was a paper published eleven months ago in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) titled “Evidence for Massive Methane Hydrate Destabilization During the Penultimate Interglacial Warming.”
It brings up the topic of the “Clathrate Gun Hypothesis,” which is the absolute worst case scenario for humanity’s future.
All across the planet there are an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of methane gas frozen into a snowcone-like slurry called clathrates or methane hydrates laying on the sea floor off the various continental shelves.
When they suddenly melt, that’s the “firing of the gun.” An explosion (in the context of geologic time) of atmospheric gas that’s over 70 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. The Clathrate Gun.
The PNAS paper mentioned above concludes that 126,000 years ago there was an event that caused a small amount of these clathrates to warm enough to turn to gas and bubble up out of the seas. The resulting spike in greenhouse gas (methane) led to a major warming event worldwide:
“Our results identify an exceptionally large warming of the equatorial Atlantic intermediate waters and strong evidence of methane release and oxidation almost certainly due to massive methane hydrate destabilization during the early part of the penultimate warm episode (126,000 to 125,000 y ago). This major warming was caused by … a brief episode of meltwater-induced weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and amplified by a warm mean climate.”
The researchers warn we may be looking at a similar event in our time:
“Our results highlight climatic feedback processes associated with the penultimate climate warming that can serve as a paleoanalog for modern ongoing warming.”
As glaciers melt and the oceans warm, they note:
“[M]eltwater-induced AMOC weakening significantly amplifies the warming of intermediate waters and, in turn, destabilizes shallow subsurface methane hydrate deposits.”
In other words, the recent extreme warming of our oceans increases the chances the AMOC Great Conveyor Belt will shut down, throwing Europe into an existential crisis and wilding the rest of the world’s weather. And, most ominously, the AMOC shutting down will speed up the melting of more methane clathrates on the sea floors around the world.
The process is driven by warming of the oceans, which absorb more than 90 percent of the additional global warming heat we’re forcing by burning fossil fuels. As the BBC noted, the past month and first weeks of July “were hotter than any in recorded history” and:
“This week, sea surface temperatures along the coasts of Southern Spain and North Africa were 2-4C (3.6-7.2F) higher than they would normally be at this time of year, with some spots 5C (9F) above the long-term average.”
Ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida this week were in the range that Jacuzzi recommends for their hot tubs: 101 degrees. This has never happened before in human history.
The least likely but most dangerous outcome scenario is that the warming ocean might begin a massive melting of those methane hydrate slurries into gas, producing a “burp” of that greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, further adding to global warming, which would then melt even more of the clathrates.
It would be a deadly “positive feedback system,” with each phase of warming setting up the next and worse one. The Clathrate Gun.
At the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, this runaway process is apparently what happened when a spike in methane led to such a violent warming of the planet that it killed over 90 percent of all life in the oceans and 70 percent of all life on land, paving the way for the rise of the dinosaurs, as cold-blooded lizards were among the few survivors.
That period is referred to as the Permian Mass Extinction, or, simply, “The Great Dying.” It was the most destructive mass extinction event in the history of our planet.
Eight years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio and I put together and co-narrated a 12-minute video about this exact scenario, interviewing some of the world’s top climate scientists.
The “clathrate gun hypothesis” is controversial, but there’s a large body of evidence for it having done the damage at the end of the Permian, as we note in that video.
While it’s the least likely but most dramatic outcome of today’s global warming, it’s worth heeding the warning: by pouring over thirty billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year we have stirred a beast that could—if we don’t take serious action soon—spell the doom of human civilization, if not humanity itself.
As the scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted:
“The key findings of our study add to a growing body of observational findings strongly supporting the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis.’ … Importantly, the interval we have studied is marked by a mean climate state comparable to future projections of transient global climate warming of 1.3 °C to 3.0 °C.” [emphasis mine]
We just this year passed 1.3 degrees Celsius of planetary warming: we are now in the territory of the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis if these researchers are right (although the risks are still small).
This is the first study I’ve seen to make such a claim, and it’s not from crackpots or alarmists; these are solid, credible scientists with a lifetime of learning and work behind them.
And, they argue, if the AMOC weakens or shuts down, all bets are off:
“Simulation studies have suggested warming of intermediate waters has been limited to ∼1.5 °C to 3 °C, and that such warmings were insufficient to significantly affect the stability of shallow subsurface methane hydrates. However, the magnitude of intermediate water warming can be significantly amplified by meltwater-induced weakening of atmospheric and ocean circulation, an amplification not considered in the simulations that examined potential gas hydrate destabilization.”
In other words, if the AMOC fails, the clathrate gun hypothesis becomes significantly more viable.
For much of the past four decades, climate activists have been warning us that we’re approaching tipping points and thresholds that will alter how Americans live, cost us a fortune, and kill millions of humans every year.
Now we’re there. Our “normal” climate is dead; the weather has gone insane, and it is annually killing thousands of Americans and millions of people all around the globe. And the numbers are increasing almost exponentially, year to year.
This is how quickly it has hit us: when I published the first edition of my book warning of climate change, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in 1996 (it’s been updated twice since then) there was still a vigorous debate here in the United States—funded in large part by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in rightwing media—over whether climate change was even a real thing.
They knew that their product was poisoning our atmosphere, but they were making hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. Nothing was more important to these morbidly rich people than that money.
They and their bought-off politicians began to believe their own lies, or at least some did, and thought this wouldn’t happen until they were all dead anyway, even if it was true.
But then it happened. The climate emergency we were worried about arrived. It is here, now.
Looking at statistical information about major heatwaves—particularly ones that hit multiple continents at the same time—the authors of the Journal of Climate paper referenced above found:
“Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area.”
In the 1980s the Northern Hemisphere averaged around 73 heatwaves during the summer months from May to September. By the 2010s that number had grown to 152 heatwaves per summer.
And those heat waves are also almost 20 percent hotter than they were the year Reagan won the presidency (and denied climate change throughout his 8 fossil-fuel-funded years in office).
One of the most startling understandings of what’s happening has only become apparent in the past decade or so: that the atmospheric Polar Jet Stream is acting weird and thus making our weather extremes more severe.
Over the course of multiple conversations with a few of the world’s top climate scientists I’ve learned that the Polar Jet Stream—the fast-moving river of high-altitude (30,000+ feet) air that circulates around the North Pole—has slowed down, weakened, and is beginning to “drool” down over parts of North America, going as far south as Texas.
This was, in fact, what caused the severe winter weather that shut down Texas’ privatized power grid a few years back, along with causing the “bomb cyclone” freezing storms hitting the Midwest and Northeast every winter, and the extended periods of 100+ degree weather all across America, Europe, Russia, and China this summer.
Historically, the Polar Jet Stream was held in place—mostly in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere—by the temperature differential between the Arctic and the middle latitudes, where most Americans (outside of northern Alaska) live.
The cold arctic air defined the northernmost margin of the Polar Jet Stream while the warmer middle latitude air defined its southernmost margin. While it pushed weather patterns across North America for much of my life, it rarely dipped below the Mason-Dixon line and, even when it did, generally just brought the hot/cold, or wet/drought weather behind it for only a day or two.
But the Arctic has been warming at least three times faster than the middle latitudes where most of us live, which means the difference in temperature between the Arctic air to the north of the Jet Stream and our air to its south has diminished.
The North Pole/Arctic, once a solid cap of ice where Santa Claus was supposed to live, is now an open sea every summer.
As that temperature differential has declined, so has the strength and velocity of the Jet Stream. Now, instead of whipping across the Northern Hemisphere, it often spills down as far south as Mexico and then stays in place for days at a time.
What would have been a one-day cold-snap or heat wave becomes multiple days, long enough to wreak billions in damage to a state’s residential and energy infrastructure.
What would have been a rainstorm lasting a few hours becomes an unrelenting downpour lasting for days, creating massive flooding.
These changes in the Jet Stream, combined with the warming of our oceans (whose temperatures also drive weather), have also caused what were once routine weather patterns to change.
Regions that were only dry during the summer are now experiencing drought year-round; parts of the country where flooding was occasional but rare are now regularly experiencing massive, days-long storms that tear up houses and flood entire regions.
Flights are bumpier and being canceled with increasing frequency because of weather, as we’re just now sliding into this unknowable new era of severe weather weirding.
This is our new normal, and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars every year, all to preserve the profits of a fossil fuel industry that knew in the 1960s that their product was poisoning the world and would lead to this outcome.
But don’t think that just because this is the new normal that this “normal” will last. The last time our planet saw CO2 levels at their current 422 parts-per-million, sea levels were 60 feet higher and trees were growing in Antarctica.
In other words, we’re on a path, not at a destination. The planet will catch up with all that CO2, and as it does our weather will continue to become more and more severe until we figure out a way to get CO2 levels back down to the 1950s count of just over 300 ppm.
Meanwhile, we’re pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere right now than at any time in human history, despite efforts among the world’s developed nations to reduce their carbon footprints.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a major kick-in-the-pants to Europe to get off their dependence on fossil fuels and go green, as have high oil and gas prices around the world.
But here in America, Republicans on the Supreme Court (with 6 justices put on the bench with money from fossil-fuel billionaires) kneecapped the Biden administration’s ability to regulate CO2 and promote green energy.
In 2010, five Republicans on the Court legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision. And, of course, Republicans deeply in the pocket of Big Oil, Gas, and Coal continue to deny climate change is even happening. Just last week, Congressman Scott Perry called climate change a massive “grift.”
And now the Heritage Foundation has, according to Raw Story, a plan for the next Republican administration to gut the EPA; end the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations; end “grid expansion for the benefit of renewable resources or supporting low/carbon generation”; ban EPA workers from using certain types of science; and prevent other states from copying California’s strict environmental standards for greenhouse gasses.
The fossil fuel industry has almost unlimited money to buy politicians, per Citizens United. The ten top recipients of fossil fuel money in Congress last year were:
Manchin, Joe (D-WV) $724,270
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $396,284
Lankford, James (R-OK) $275,148
Pfluger, August (R-TX) $268,011
Kennedy, John (R-LA) $264,788
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $249,808
Sinema, Kyrsten (D-AZ) $230,160
Fletcher, Lizzie (D-TX) $191,765
Cuellar, Henry (D-TX) $191,450
Scott, Tim (R-SC) $181,291
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $181,263
Gonzales, Tony (R-TX) $174,461
Rubio, Marco (R-FL) $165,636
Amazing how little it costs to buy a member of Congress to keep your multi-billion-dollar-a-year profits flowing, isn’t it?
Here’s who opensecrets.org says are the top fossil fuel money recipients through their careers:
Romney, Mitt (R-UT) $8,291,262
Cornyn, John (R-TX) $4,678,062
Cruz, Ted (R-TX) $4,138,421
McConnell, Mitch (R-KY) $2,852,107
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $2,581,832
Hutchison, Kay Bailey (R-TX) $2,332,021
Inhofe, James M (R-OK) $2,320,139
Pearce, Steve (R-NM) $2,236,714
Barton, Joe (R-TX) $2,211,987
Brady, Kevin (R-TX) $2,087,396
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $1,847,013
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $1,792,602
Americans are dying because these paid-off shills have either failed to act or actively blocked any meaningful change in our nation’s climate policy. They have blood on their hands, with more to come as every year brings more severe floods, storms, and drought.
We can no longer tolerate this morally criminal level of political malpractice, particularly since there is still time to act. And we must move quickly.
If America is to reclaim its position as a leader and role model for the world and stop the disastrous new climate “normal” we’re now entering from becoming radically more severe, we must get our use of fossil fuels under control.
That means ostracizing elected officials in the pocket of the industry, rolling back Citizens United so Big Oil and Big Coal can’t continue to bribe members of Congress, and throwing significant subsidies into greening our energy and transportation systems.
The climate emergency is here. We can’t wait any longer for major and dramatic worldwide action.
Thom Hartmann is America’s number one progressive talk-show host and the New York Times bestselling author of The Hidden History of American Healthcare and more than 30 other books in print. His online writings are compiled at HartmannReport.com. He is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
Featured image: Big Island, Hawaii by Doug Kewon via Unsplash
Editor’s note: In order to create a culture where the greed of humans reigned supreme to the needs of life on the planet, the human civilization had to create myths. Categorically claiming that the past was worse, in terms of human rights and equality, stopped any discussion over the detrimental state of both in present society. All of these myths directly or indirectly form the basis of human supremacy, male supremacy and the Eurocentric perspective. Challenging these assumptions are just one of the ways to bring cultural changes. The following article talks about three of such myths about our past that have been dismissed by recent evidence.
This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
By Gary M. Fienman/Independent Media Institute
The New Gilded Age, wars along the Russian border, a global pandemic, battles for women’s rights, even the Titanic: history does rhyme with the present. Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”
That’s something we can realistically change. And if we do, we’ll have an easier time addressing the macro and multiple challenges humanity faces, and finding the pathways to necessary compromises and alliances with people across all borders.
But our blinders and misconceptions about the past constrain the knowledge that we have to plan for a better future. Societies don’t get much out of living memory because the longer-term ramifications from recent decisions generally remain unsettled, and most of the big problems we face are the cumulative products of decades or centuries of the wrong approach to humanity’s histories and transitions. To leverage and learn from humanity’s history regarding what fostered sustainability in the past, we need to know the outcomes.
The good news is that through concerted research in history and archaeology, we now know a great deal more about the different paths that people have taken and their outcomes than we did just fifty years back. Long-term perspectives on cities, states, and empires are now much fuller and more regionally diverse than was known decades ago. Synthetic, comparative analyses have been undertaken. We now know what worked and what did not.
To draw better inferences and learn from past human histories, it is necessary to challenge three pervasive myths, which fundamentally shape not just what we think about the past, but why so many see history as irrelevant when it comes to guiding the present and shaping the future. Each myth is pervasive and entrenched as the ideas and presumptions behind them were born and entangled with the roots of the Western tradition of social sciences, baked into the frameworks through which researchers traditionally study the past.
The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state. Clearly, humans do have the capacity for great selfishness, but as a species, we also are better cooperators with non-kin than any other animal. This seeming paradox is explicable if we recognize that people are not by nature either uniformly cunning or cuddly, but rather humans, past and present, are capable of both cooperation and selfishness depending on context. Our nature is not one-dimensional. Cooperative behavior is situational; we engage when an individual’s wants dovetail with their larger social network. Lack of alignment short-circuits cooperation whether the network is large or small.
The first supposition or myth undergirds a broadly held second one—that large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization. Autocratic governance kept the ever-selfish in line, the argument goes. Ancient Athens and republican Rome generally have been categorically distinguished as the unexplained exception to this presumed premodern path, which came to an end just a few centuries ago when ideas from the Classical era were rediscovered, giving rise to The Enlightenment, when Europeans adopted reason, science, democracy, and more.
The latter scenario became the mid-twentieth-century justification for the third myth, the walling off of modernity from the deeper past. Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.
These three myths underlie the severing of deep history, especially non-Western pasts, from the present. Often in the absence of robust historical information, contemporary observations of non-Western peoples were categorically slotted into imagined pasts that led stage-by-stage to modernist Western presents and futures.
Progressive visions of human history spurred research in history, archaeology, and related disciplines. What we have learned over recent decades does not conform with those starting myths and expectations. Change was not linear, nor was it uniform from region to region. Likewise, premodern governance was not consistently despotic, especially in the Indigenous Americas. Yet in every global region, how people governed themselves shifted over time.
When it comes to the past, we also know the outcomes. And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically. A similar pattern, albeit less definitive, was also found for a global sample of states and empires. More in-depth study is necessary, but these historical patterns seem worth investigating in other regions and probing further where they have been documented. The role and success of governance and institutions in facing and meeting the challenges of the past unlock a treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.
Gary M. Feinman is an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
Photo by Sara Darcaj on Unsplash
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