What we can’t learn from history

James Hester, who has a fascinating practice applying lessons from history, has recently turned his attention to the problem of sustainability. First he started looking for sources, some of which I could help him with, and then we had a long conversation over Twitter, which stands out in my mind as one of the few instances when I’ve been really frustrated with that medium. Although we do have substantive differences in outlook, values, and beliefs about the world, I couldn’t help but think we were talking past each other far more because of the need to be pithy about huge complex topics than we would have done in person or in long form text. So I’ve been meaning to blog about this, and I was glad to see that he beat me to it, because his post—“The journey of a million years begins with a single step”—sets the context well.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing (but you should), the gist is that he’s looking for examples from history of societies that met these three criteria:

  1. All humans have unrestricted access to the basic necessities of survival (space, food, shelter/cover, freedom of movement, and company of other humans).
  1. All humans maintain a balance in their way of living such that their existence does not become toxic to themselves or their environment.
  1. All humans are unable or unwilling (or both) to alter their way of living in such a way that would violate points 1 and/or 2.

I think part of our disagreement comes from a difference in ambition: where James’s first point is limited to necessities, broadly defined, I am interested in minimising human suffering and maximising thriving. That means I’m not willing to accept the two easiest lessons history can teach us: that this problem would be easier to solve if we had a mass die-off first, and that it could be solved by going back to the stone age and imposing extremely tight technological limitations on what humans can do. I am not convinced that there are any examples from history that don’t violate either those requirements or one of James’s 3, though I would love to be proved wrong. 

A particularly big challenge for applying lessons from history in this context is that our situation is so unprecedented. We are the first truly global civilisation, in the sense that no-one gets to be untouched by it. A select few, in North Korea and the few remaining “uncontacted” tribes in Papua New Guinea, inland South America and the Andaman Islands get to not directly interact with the world civilisation, but we now have the ability to completely use up and destroy resources on a global scale, and that means no-one can escape the consequences.

Until relatively recently, the closest analogy for this was isolated island civilisations, because everyone else had some kind of external pressures and/or escape valves. For example, the native people of the Puget Sound seemed to live pretty well in balance with the constraints of their local environment, but their situation had some significant differences from today’s world civilisation. This is an extremely biologically productive region—much more so than the world on average—they still had plenty of trade with people outside the region, and they had downward population pressure from local warfare and Haida slave raids. We don’t get to trade beyond this planet, we have to contend with the overall productivity of the entire planet, and random episodes of violent deaths and disappearances are a price I’m unwilling to accept for ecological sustainability.

If we do start looking at isolated islands, well the first obvious tale is that Easter Island, which had overreached its natural resources so badly that its population had almost died out when Europeans arrived. Iceland managed to stop short of that complete disaster, but it came pretty close and its people were hungry and poor for most of its history; not so much a tale of human thriving as human stopping just short of the cliff edge. New Zealand looks like it might have been doing better until Captain Cook showed up, but the Māori had only arrived a few centuries earlier, hadn’t even really finished colonising the place themselves, they’d already driven over 30 species to extinction, and they fought repeated wars among themselves.

There are plenty of examples of human civilisations not consuming all of their resources because they simply didn’t have the technology or population to do so, but that seems to directly contradict at least my requirement of human thriving, if not James’s first condition about humans satisfying basic needs. And given the pervasiveness of human societies becoming so rapacious that they exhaust their natural resources as soon as they become able to, I think it takes some epic noble savage-ism to believe that other societies wouldn’t have done the same if the opportunity presented itself.

I do know of one intriguing example of an island civilisation stopping within its limits and maintaining a sort of material abundance for its people, though it’s another fatally flawed example: pre-colonial Hawaiʻi. One of the reasons I’m so generally fascinated with Hawaiʻi is that they seem to have figured out a way to maintain a steady-state population and economy within the very tight constraints of the water supply on some small islands. Their achievements were genuinely impressive. They had a watershed-based land ownership regime that aligned each chief’s interests with sensible stewardship of their most limited resource. They had an incredibly efficient combined aquaculture and intensive farming system along with rather clever methods for catching wild fish. They maintained their population right at the edge of what the land could safely support. Unfortunately, they achieved all this with a thoroughly autocratic, feudal system, in which each person had a pre-ordained role in society, the penalty for questioning that role was frequently death, and the birth rate was controlled by the aristocracy essentially getting to veto any contact between a commoner man and woman outside highly ritualised interactions. As impressed as I am with what they achieved, how they achieved it neither looks like the picture of thriving I’m after, nor like something that could possibly scale to a world of 7 billion people.

Now, my knowledge of history is far from comprehensive. There may be some better examples that I don’t know about, and I would love for you to tell me about them in the comments. But until I see some, the only sustainability lessons I can see from history are that we could solve the problem of resource over-exploitation by doing one or more of killing most of the world’s people, abandoning most of our technology, or instituting a hellishly autocratic world government. I don’t find any of these solutions remotely palatable, so we have an urgent need to come up with something new; something better than the world has seen before.

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