Lessons from pandemics past
Some big-picture observations from "Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History"
Kyle Harper’s Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History is a book well worth reading for its account of the long-running contest between humanity and its microbial nemeses. His previous book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, chronicled the profound influence climate change and infectious disease had on the course of the Roman Empire – and left him well-positioned to undertake an even more ambitious research project. It’s a sweeping synthesis of the most recent historical, archaeological, and scientific findings on the subject of our relationship with infectious disease.
But this article isn’t a full-blown review of Plagues Upon the Earth. Instead, here are two big-picture observations gleaned from the book that help put America’s immediate political and policy debates in a wider context. We’re so focused on the ins and outs of, say, the Capitol Hill wrangling over the proposed reconciliation package that we rarely stop to consider things from a more expansive perspective – a shift that can help us think a little more clearly about where we are and where we should go from there.
First, there’s the reality of deep globalization over time – not in the modern sense of intrusive global economic integration, but the seemingly relentless human drive to connect with one another over vast distances. Whether we think it’s been for good or ill, we often talk about globalization as if it’s something novel in human affairs that occurred for the most part over the past three decades. But as Harper’s account makes clear, globalization has been a fundamental force in human history since the beginning of recorded time. Humanity has ceaselessly drawn itself closer and closer together over time, with advances in technology and transportation ranging from the domestication of the horse to the advent of the jet airliner.
Globalization isn’t some transient phenomenon that’s happened over the past few decades – it’s an enduring and ingrained reality of human behavior. Talk of “deglobalization” may make sense when we look at things from shorter-term perspective. But looking back further we can see that an apparently innate human impulse toward globalization has survived far worse setbacks including the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Black Death.
Indeed, globalization roared back even stronger after each historical reverse. The collapse of Rome, for instance, did not stop the Old World from becoming more populated and more connected than it ever had been in the years and decades before the Black Death struck in the late fourteenth century. By this time, Harper notes, trading networks in the eastern Mediterranean “carried more commerce than at any time in the past.”
Early on, moreover, Harper provides a historical outline of globalization that offers a useful way to think about the phenomenon in a wider context. It consists of six main phases, including:
Prehistoric globalization, sparked by the domestication of the horse and the advent of the wheel;
Iron Age globalization, occurring three thousand years ago and coinciding with “the rise of massive territorial empires and the organization of transcontinental trade” that “drew the societies of Asia, Europe, and Africa into regular contact;”
Peak Old World globalization, reached a millennium ago when “vibrant overland networks of exchange” and “Indian Ocean commercial circuits” pulled Asia, Europe, and Africa ever closer;
The Columbian Exchange, when “long-distance sailing reconnected the hemispheres” and inaugurated “the beginning of true planetary globalization;”
Industrial globalization, or the increased use of fossil-fueled transportation like railroads, steamships, and automobiles from the nineteenth century onward that in turn led to “increases in trade, migration, and urbanization;”
Jet age globalization, which made it possible for people to inexpensively travel anywhere on the globe in virtually no time at all.
This schema allows us to see globalization as a reflection of the fundamental human impulse to seek out and connect with others far and wide, sometimes for benign purposes like trade and travel as well as more destructive ones like conquest and exploitation. It’s not a desire that should be taken as vindication for idealistic, “one world” visions of humanity, however. Instead, it’s best to view these impulses to globalization as practical in nature – and ones that persist and recur throughout human history.
There’s no reason to see today’s setbacks – whether the COVID-19 pandemic or dissatisfaction with existing international political-economic arrangements – as the death knell of globalization. Periods of retrenchment and consolidation have occurred frequently over time, but they’ve never killed off the underlying human urges that ultimately drive globalization. We’re better off viewing our current troubles as one of these shocks to the system that can give us the opportunities to reconsider whether the way we’ve gone about globalization over the past three decades has really worked out as promised.
Second, and perhaps most important, progress is real. In an apparent effort to avoid the charge that he’s a Panglossian prophet of progress, Harper heavily caveats his argument throughout the book. But the evidence he assembles amount to a clear brief for progress, especially over the past three centuries or so. Scientific advances, the Industrial Revolution, and the growth of state power produced enormous, epochal advances in human health and well-being over a remarkably short period of time – just 300 years separate London diarist Samuel Pepys stepping in a neighbor’s feces (an otherwise unremarkable incident referenced by Harper to illustrate the state of sanitation in seventeenth century Britain) from Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon.
It’s a fundamental shift in human affairs – though not in human nature. We’re dealing with conditions unprecedented in terms of material abundance and health, conditions that have continued to improve despite world wars and depressions. Humanity has beaten back plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, and other diseases that killed us in droves in centuries and millennia past. This progress hasn’t been cost-free by any means, and it’s come with its own share of problems like climate change.
That’s a valuable reminder in a time when we’re constantly told that progress is an illusion or not worth the cost. It’s a bit of rhetoric that recurs frequently in the context of climate change, where activists promise that the end is nigh unless we renounce progress and put an end to economic growth – one of the key sources of our ability to beat back some of our worst microbial activities. Without an active belief in the possibility of progress, we’re unlikely to take action needed to avert or ameliorate the worst effects of climate change.
But in many ways, that’s the story of human history that Harper tells in Plagues Upon the Earth. It’s a story of constant human meddling in our environments, transforming them in profound ways whether we realize it or not. As we’ve altered our own environments and drawn closer together through globalization and urbanization, our diseases have evolved with us. Only in recent centuries have we developed the ability to affect our environment on truly planetary proportions. There’s no going back to the past or an idyllic state of nature, where humanity lived in harmony with the environment.
As Plagues Upon the Earth makes clear – almost in spite of itself – the only way out of these new problems is continual progress. Any forward-looking politics – call it progressive or something else – worthy of the name ought to believe in progress, but today too many of those who call themselves progressive no longer seem to do so. We’ll undoubtedly create new, different problems for ourselves along the way. But that’s the way it’s always been, and there’s no reason to believe that humanity will ever be rid of problems and challenges to deal with in one way or another.
In the end, there’s no paradise or final end point within humanity’s reach. We’re in the position of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, who the French philosopher imagined was happy despite his sentence to repeatedly push his boulder back up a hill only to see it roll back down. Progress doesn’t mean we’ll have solved all our problems and challenges, but it does mean that we can find ourselves grateful to have new problems to tackle – along with new tools and techniques we can use to do so.
We live in an unprecedented era of human health and well-being, and we shouldn’t underestimate or take this progress for granted.