(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘humanity

“Human history seems to me to be one long story of people sweeping down—or up, I suppose—replacing other people in the process”*…

Max Roser argues that, if we keep each other safe – and protect ourselves from the risks that nature and we ourselves pose – we are only at the beginning of human history…

… The development of powerful technology gives us the chance to survive for much longer than a typical mammalian species.

Our planet might remain habitable for roughly a billion years. If we survive as long as the Earth stays habitable, and based on the scenario above, this would be a future in which 125 quadrillion children will be born. A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000.

A billion years is a thousand times longer than the million years depicted in this chart. Even very slow moving changes will entirely transform our planet over such a long stretch of time: a billion years is a timespan in which the world will go through several supercontinent cycles – the world’s continents will collide and drift apart repeatedly; new mountain ranges will form and then erode, the oceans we are familiar with will disappear and new ones open up…

… the future is big. If we keep each other safe the huge majority of humans who will ever live will live in the future.

And this requires us to be more careful and considerate than we currently are. Just as we look back to the heroes who achieved what we enjoy today, those who come after us will remember what we did for them. We will be the ancestors of a very large number of people. Let’s make sure we are good ancestors…

If we manage to avoid a large catastrophe, we are living at the early beginnings of human history: “The Future is Vast,” from @MaxCRoser @OurWorldInData.

* Alexander McCall Smith

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” was put in quarantine on North Brother Island, in New York City, where she was isolated until she died in 1938.  She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she first inadvertently, then knowingly spread typhoid for years while working as a cook in the New York area.

Mallon had previously been identified as a carrier (in 1905) and quarantined for three years, after which she was set free on the condition she changed her occupation and embraced good hygiene habits. But after working a lower paying job as a laundress, Mary changed her last name to Brown and returned to cooking… and over the next five years the infectious cycle returned, until she was identified and put back into quarantine.

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“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”*…

The late David Graeber (with his co-author David Wengrow), left one last book; William Deresiewicz gives us an early look…

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.

And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring…

A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change: “Human History Gets a Rewrite,” @WDeresiewicz introduces the newest– and last?– book from @davidgraeber and @davidwengrow. Eminently worth reading in full.

* James Baldwin

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As we reinterpret, we might spare a thought for Vic Allen; he died on this date in 1914. A British human rights activist, political prisoner, sociologist, historian, economist and professor at the University of Leeds, he worked closely with British trade unions, and was considered a key player in the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. He spent much of his life supporting the South African National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and was a key mentor to British trade union leader Arthur Scargill, In 2010 Allen was awarded the Kgao ya Bahale award, the highest honor afforded by the South African Union of Miners. After his death he was widely commended by his fellow academics and activists for his lifelong commitment to worker’s rights and racial equality.

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“But enough about me, let’s talk about you…. what do you think of me?”*…

 

Century

 

The 21st century is the most important century in human history.

At least that’s what a number of thinkers say. Their argument is pretty simple: Mostly, it’s that there are huge challenges that we have to surmount this century to get any future at all, making this the most consequential of all centuries so far. Furthermore, a solution to those challenges would likely mean a future farther from the brink of destruction — which makes this century more pivotal than future centuries, too…

[The case for this century as most important, unpacked]

Sure, we have some pretty good arguments for the importance of our era. But … doesn’t everybody? Are the arguments for the 21st century really that much stronger than the arguments for the 1st century, or for centuries yet to come?

Under this view, sure, we have some serious challenges ahead of us. But it’s a mistake to think we’re in a unique moment in history. There’s every reason to think that the challenges faced in future centuries will be as significant…

[The cases for other periods as most important, explored]

But it’s not just an abstract philosophy argument… If this is the crucial moment in human history, foundations that’ll be around for centuries aren’t a top priority. If humanity’s biggest problems are best left to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, then it doesn’t seem so strange to try to set up enduring human institutions with the power to influence successive generations. If this is the critical moment, the balance of our efforts should probably be spent less on long-term priorities questions and more on action — like political efforts to reverse course on dangerous human activities, and research on how to mitigate the immediate dangers of present threats…

A philosophic argument over the relative importance of our present era (and why it matters): “Is this the most important century in human history?

(Your correspondent would note that, even if this is the most important century in human history so far, it doesn’t follow that there won’t centuries that are at least as important to come…  so it’s surely prudent to invest energy and resources in assuring that foundational institutions and infrastructure, options, and resources are available to our successors…)

* variously attributed to “CC Bloom” (Bette Midler in Beaches) and NYC Mayor Ed Koch, among others

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1520 that Suleiman I (AKA Suleiman the Magnificent) was proclaimed Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  The tenth and longest-reigning Sultan, he ruled over at least 25 million people at the apex of Ottoman economic, military, and political power, and at the broadest range of its geographical reach.  A distinguished poet and goldsmith, he also became a great patron of culture, overseeing the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary and architectural development.

220px-EmperorSuleiman source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all”*…

 

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Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A baby born today will be thirty-something in 2050. If all goes well, that baby will still be around in 2100, and might even be an active citizen of the 22nd century. What should we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or of the 22nd century? What kind of skills will he or she need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around them and navigate the maze of life?…

“As the pace of change increases, the very meaning of being human is likely to mutate and physical and cognitive structures will melt”: “Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind.”

* Henri Poincare, The Foundations of Science

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As we agree with the Marquis of Halifax that “the best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory,” we might send insightful birthday greetings to Leo Tolstoy; he was born on this date in 1828 (O.S.; September 9, N.S.).  Widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time, he first achieved literary acclaim in his twenties with his semi-autobiographical trilogy, ChildhoodBoyhood, and Youth, and Sevastopol Sketches, based on his experiences in the Crimean War.  But he is surely best remembered for two of his novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, often cited as pinnacles of realist fiction.

220px-L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”*…

 

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in setting the Doomsday Clock 2.5 minutes before midnight earlier this year. On nuclear weapons and climate change, “humanity’s most pressing existential threats,” the Bulletin’s scientists found that “inaction and brinkmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”

Every day, it seems, brings with it fresh new horrors. Mass murderCatastrophic climate changeNuclear annihilation.

It’s all enough to make a reasonable person ask: How much longer can things go on this way?

A Princeton University astrophysicist named J. Richard Gott has a surprisingly precise answer to that question…

Gott applies straight-forward logic and the laws of probability to setting our exit date.  “Calculations” haven’t worked out so well for Mayan seers or the likes of Harold Camping; but as you’ll read, Gott has tested his method, and done remarkably well… so: “We have a pretty good idea of when humans will go extinct.”

* REM

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As we plan our parties, we might recall that it was on this date in (what we now call) 46 BCE, that the final year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar, began.  The Romans had added a leap month every few years to keep their lunar calendar in sync with the solar year, but had missed a few with the chaos of the civil wars of the late Republic. Julius Caesar added two extra leap months to recalibrate the calendar in preparation for his calendar reform, which went into effect in (what we now now as) 45 BC.  The year, which had 445 days, was thus known as annus confusionis (“year of confusion”).

Fragmentary fresco of a pre-Julian Roman calendar

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

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