I do a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing on line, and there's a good chance you do, too; but I'd like to pause to remind all and sundry that there are a number of advantages in the slow-reading of old and somewhat old books in hard-copy rather than comparable on-line reading, even when nowadays one can highlight on-line text, do very efficient searches, and even make/take notes: plus copy, paste, and link, as (somewhat ironically) I do below.
off, there are just matters of format. Except for some brief periods
when pulp and "pulpish" books came with internal ads, one can read in
books pretty much without commercial breaks and distractions. This is a
distinct advantage when even places like the log-in page on my credit
union site interrupts demands for complex passwords with slide-over
announcements about whatever it might be that a credit union can offer
that they think I want. ("Every time you read an ad, the hucksters
second off — and last for this blog post — it's useful to get in simple
format information relevant for current controversies from sources free
from at least specific agendas on those controversies.
been thinking such thoughts after coming across a very simple table and
a brief paragraph in a "fix-up" book, bringing together materials from
1967-72, Alfred W. Crosby Jr.'s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492,
i.e., the 1492 of the voyage of Columbus and not, say, the completion
of the Reconquest of Spain by Catholic Christians and the expulsion of
"Moors" and Jews and other undesirables. (You can find an updated
summary of Exchange on line, here.)
More exactly, I've been thinking these thoughts while putting The Columbian Exchange in dialog, so to speak, with some brief portions of the 1968 novel by Arthur C. Clarke (and Stanley Kubrick), 2001: A Space Odyssey:
portions giving some novelistic introspection by Dr. Heywood Floyd that
would've been inappropriate in the Kubrick (and Clarke) film.
What got me back to this section of 2001 was a minor brouhaha a year or so back on the word "pad"
in "iPad." Along with some other SF geeks, I pointed out that the deep
background for "pad" probably had little to do with generic Kotex but
may've been a conscious or unconscious allusion to 2001: the novel. In the second leg of his mini-odyssey from Earth to the Moon, Dr. Floyd (ch. 9) finds that
was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read.
When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would
plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and
scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the
world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important
ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his
pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold
the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the
items that interested him.
[* * *]
sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind
it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. […] The
text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the
English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but
absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news
Now prediction is not the business of science fiction — "a novelist's business is lying,"
not predicting the future, as Ursula K. Le Guin has insisted — but
looking up the quotation did get me thinking about where Clarke in 2001
had been pretty accurate at prediction and where not. With the Newspad,
Clarke had been, if anything, too timid, perhaps balancing his wild
over-optimism about Artificial Intelligence (HAL 9000), a Moon colony,
and space exploration generally.
But how did Clarke do in more somber areas, on the sort of questions suggested in reading Columbian Exchange?
the first leg of his trip to the Moon (in Chapter), Dr. Floyd raises
some of the questions central to the thematic and political concerns of 2001.
birth control was cheap, reliable, and endorsed by all the main
religions, it had come too late; the population of the world was now six
billion - a third of them in the Chinese Empire. Laws had even been
passed in some authoritarian societies limiting families to two
children, but their enforcement had proved impracticable. As a result,
food was short in every country; even the United States had meatless
days, and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite
heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods.
the need for international cooperation more urgent than ever, there
were still as many frontiers as in any earlier age. In a million years,
the human race had lost few of its aggressive instincts; along symbolic
lines visible only to politicians, the thirty-eight nuclear powers
watched one another with belligerent anxiety. Among them, they possessed
sufficient megatonnage to remove the entire surface crust of the
planet. Although there had been - miraculously - no use of atomic
weapons, this situation could hardly last forever.
Birth control in the year 2001 was relatively cheap and reliable, among the well-off, but as Clarke makes fairly clear elsewhere — I think it's in Childhood's End,
and in any case is the case — truly reliable birth control is for men
as well as women, and truly reliable birth control renders users sterile
until they make the conscious decision to restore their fertility. That
kind of birth control wasn't and isn't available, and the Roman
Catholic Church still hasn't endorsed even condoms. .
The world population in 2001 was indeed some six billion and we passed seven billion
on or about 12 March 2012. We do not, however, have massive food
shortages, nor do we have thirty-eight nuclear powers, nor, probably
to remove the entire surface crust of the planet." We do, however, as a
species, have sufficient megatonnage to bring on nuclear winter and
destroy the human species (and many other species) or, short of that,
destroy human civilization.
What Clarke was on to in 1968, and which is too often forgotten post-2001 (in spite of the once-influential Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and my never-influential but frequent kvetching) is just how special atomic weapons are.
Why Clarke remains correct on atomic weapons, and why he was so wrong on famine, is clarified in a very simple table in Columbian Exchange — or at least it's clarified when combined with a slightly more complex list in Matthew White's "Ranking: The One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" (pp. 529-30). And a short paragraph in Columbian Exchange
reminds of us the continuing relevance of the cover-story for Dr.
Floyd's trip to the Moon — an epidemic from a new pathogen at the US
Moon base — and why Bill Maher should be chided and anti-vaccination activists should be slapped around a bit.
The table in Columbian Exchange just
gives the estimated population of humans in the various large regions
of Earth for every half century from 1650 to 1950 (p. 166) and is
important in one way for showing the stability of the population of
North America between 1650 and 1750, the decrease in population of Latin
America between 1650 and 1750, and the decrease in the population of
Africa between 1650 and 1900. Since there was an influx of Europeans
into the Americas and Africa during these periods, the cause of the
stability or decline in populations is collapse in the number of
indigenous peoples: from conquest (necessarily including mass murder),
exploitation, and enslavement — as should be well known — but largely
from disease in the Americas as "virgin" populations of healthy native
Americans got exposed to diseases endemic among Europeans and their
animals, with later exposure from African slaves.
Africans and a fair number of underclass Europeans are innocent here:
they weren't willing immigrants; the Conquistadors et al. were ignorant
how virulent they and some of their animals were as disease vectors, but
are still guilty as sin [or sins: mostly Greed and Pride and Wrath, with Sloth and Lust coming in later, almost completing the traditional set].)
general trend in human population 1650 on, however, was upward, moving
from some 5.45 million in 1650 to near 2.5 billion in 1950; as modestly
numerous mammalian species go, humans had a population explosion after
1650, and one requiring an explanation.
Crosby, the main explanation for the rise in population was the part of
the Exchange wherein New World crops were adopted enthusiastically (for
the most part) in Europe, Africa, and Asia, providing new sources of
nutrition, and a wider variety of crops: allowing cultivation of land
unsuitable for Old World wheat or rice.
maize and potatoes, primarily, could feed rising populations, so the
populations rose. It was a second agricultural revolution, and that
revolution has continued, allowing us humans to avoid the great famines
Clarke and others feared for 2001.
It has been one hell of an explosion, and a tribute to human reproductivity.
the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the human population
boomed from 1.608 billion to 2.454 billion, with increases in every
region. This is impressive and important because the first fifty years
on the twentieth century were also the time of what Matthew White has
called "the Hemoclysm": the deluge of blood. White is referring mostly
to World War II, with some 66 million deaths, and its prelude, World War
I, with 15 million. But it is also the time of the deaths (in
descending order of awfulness) of some twenty million people in Stalin's
purges and deportations and intentional famines, ten million people in
the "Congo Free State" of King Leopold of Belgium — showing what can be
done without fanaticism, but with just greed and "capitalism by other
means" — the Russian Civil War (nine million deaths), the expulsion of
Germans from Eastern Europe (2.1 million), and the Mexican Revolution of
1910-20 at about one million. The figures don't include the Korean War,
which started in 1950, nor the non-war related deaths in North Korea
starting in 1948 and continuing to … well, continuing to today. And I've
omitted the Spanish Civil War and other smaller horrors with
body-counts under a million.
far as "anthropogenic" deaths from war and massacres go, if the first
half of the twentieth century didn't put a dent in human population — if
the period showed hardly a slowing down of population increase — well,
nothing short of thermonuclear Armageddon will do that.
But thermonuclear Armageddon will
do that, and with six billion human beings around in 2001, and over
seven billion human beings around now, many either despairing or looking
forward to living far higher off the figurative hog — Dr. Floyd and his
creator were right to worry that some (relatively) small but sufficient
number of them — some high-power folk among us — will fuck up
sufficiently to trigger Armageddon.
get back, though, to the cover story for Dr. Floyd's trip to Earth's
Moon and the USA's Clavius Base: the possibility of "an epidemic on the
Moon" (ch. 7), possibly "extraterrestrial" in origins (ch. 9).
That's not what's happening in 2001: A Space Odyssey; what is really happening
is the discovery of evidence that the Earth had been visited by
intelligent E.T.'s who have left an artifact "approximately three
million years old" (ch. 11), which would be major news. Still, "an
epidemic on the Moon" possibly "extraterrestrial" in origins could be
World War I and World War II combined killed some 81 million people; the "Spanish" flu pandemic from 1918 through 1920
"infected 500 million people across the world […] and killed 50 to 100
million of them," which works out to "three to five percent of the
world's population" of human beings at the time.
There's another tribute to human reproductivity there, but also a warning. Some "Andromeda Strain"
from outer space would be an existential threat to humankind; and if it
did something like unravel all forms of DNA and RNA, it could lead to mass extinction
on par with thermonuclear war or super-volcanoes or Earth's getting
smacked with another asteroid or comet. The Pathogen From Outer
Space!!!, however, is unlikely, but the basic point gets us back from
science fiction and matters as far back as 1918 and into my lifetime,
and yours, and a simple, stark paragraph in The Columbian Exchange.
The Columbian exchange continues
[in the 1970s] and will continue. The men of the Old World continue to
enjoy the benefits of biological warfare as American Indians continue to
die of Old World diseases. Between 1871 and 1947, the total number of
natives of Tierra del Fuego dropped from between 7,000 and 9,000 to 150,
many of them victims of a malady which is even now one of the chief
killers of the aborigines of the [Gran] Chaco [in South America]: measles.
Bill Maher was sixteen when Columbian Exchange was published, and sixteen was Vladimir Putin's age when 2001: a Space Odyssey was released and the novel 2001
published. In 1968, Barack Obama was seven, and few of the people were
born who today decide whether or not to get their kids inoculated
against measles and other communicable diseases — and not many more were
around who today make decisions on US and Russian nuclear policies.
and Clarke had agendas all right, and so does Matthew White; but Crosby
and Clarke could not have had in mind specific leaders in 2015, or
parents in fancy enclaves in California. In simple prose and with simple
tables — without website glitz and distractions — they told stories,
laid out arguments, and gave information with continuing relevance.
human species can survive very great losses; it's unlikely we'll
survive a nuclear cataclysm. The human species has survived epidemics
and pandemics and endemic (childhood) diseases; but only fools and/or
the irresponsible or immoral invite communicable disease — and
responsible parents and societies try to protect children from
unnecessary suffering, even when that suffering is far from lethal.
trade in crops and products, animals and ideas, has brought wealth and
abundance of people. It has also brought death and misery. Global
exchange and globalization will do the same and do it disastrously
unless we take long-standing advice and literally and figuratively move
and trade with caution.