Dear Students, Alumni, Friends, Staff and Faculty of the Ball State Department of History,
On April 29, 2020, my first pandemic letter was posted online, and, as I write this on November 28, 2021, we continue to feel the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant carrying a large number of mutations has appeared. A high number of significant mutations might make it harder to vaccinate against, but, fortunately, at the time of this writing, it is being reported that patients have so far exhibited mild symptoms. More time is needed to determine the impact of this new variant on the extremely vulnerable however.
Meanwhile, NASA is also reporting that the extent of arctic sea ice is down 13 percent when compared to 1979, and the average global temperature is up 1.18 degrees Celsius (2.12 degrees Fahrenheit) when compared to 1880. As historians, we are called to struggle against having short-term memories, and it is important to note that global warming was projected in the 19th century, and scientists have also discussed human overpopulation leading to the spread of pandemic diseases for some time. What we are undergoing now is not really unprecedented, nor should it be a surprise. It was all known as possible, and even highly probable.
I know that may be cold comfort. However, we should also remember that our species has faced challenges in the past, and survived. The Black Death did not destroy Eurasia in the 14th century, nor did the coming of the Little Ice Age. The horrific decimation of Indigenous American populations after 1492 did not eliminate those populations, whose ethnic and cultural presence remains so pronounced in the western hemisphere, especially in places like Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia. We are survivors when we confront and think through our pressing problems. It is avoidance and escape into utter fantasy that are not good.
Having just said that we should avoid escapism, it may come as a surprise that I find myself spending a great deal of time thinking about history and science fiction. Does that mean I am avoiding living in the present?
Science fiction, at its best, is not fantasy. It is a speculative projection of where we may be going based on what is observable today. This was true of early writers in the genre, including Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, and it is true of the best science fiction authors today. Yes, I have watched Star Trek, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I am primarily referencing and thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed; Always Coming Home; The Left Hand of Darkness), Octavia Butler (The Parable of the Sower; The Parable of the Talents), Frank Herbert (Dune), and, of course, Isaac Asimov. Foundation started as very Eurocentric, gender-biased and tech-heavy, but Asimov grew a bit in the 1980s and the notion of cultural, social, and political cycles goes beyond European thought, even though Asimov based his cycles on the fall of the Roman empire, the Middle Ages, and the western European Renaissance.
Good science fiction forces us to think of how our societies operate, and how societal collapse may occur, and may be survivable. I am heartened that there is talk of filming Octavia Butler’s works, even as I take comfort in seeing a model for living in tune with natural cycles in Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The future need not be as bleak as the utter destruction of humanity by infectious disease portrayed in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), and even there, Shelley, with her Romantic sensibility, waxes poetic about the beauty of nature and nonhuman animals taking over the spaces left behind by people. Perhaps, if we think through our current situation carefully there will be space for us, as well as natural beauty and other animals.
The future is not fixed, and it is science fiction, projected from our current circumstances, that helps us work through extrapolations of “the shape of things to come.” Combined with a knowledge of history, science fiction allows us to wonder whether there are variable and interchangeable patterns in the course of natural history, and its human history subset. Truly reflective science fiction can expand our vision as historians by having us seek out patterns that have been, and may or may not come to be. If there are no patterns, allowing for historical empathy, then history really is not understandable, and I do think we have some evidence of recognizing similar needs, motives, and actions to our own in the past. Among other things, it appears as though all humans eat, and culturally make much of the food that they consume. There are commonalities to pursue.
There is empowerment in all this, although we certainly cannot predict with certainty what will come to be. There are just too many interacting variables and agents to predict at present, but by seeing all that has happened in the past and what may or may not happen in the future, we avoid being surprised. Our contemporary world is truly a particular accumulation of events and actions that has not happened before, but many elements of what we see around us are not unprecedented. George Mason Sociologist Jack Goldstone has argued for some time that rapidly growing population exceeding resources leads to violence and chaos, rebellion and revolution. We walk into our constantly recurring messes with some knowledge, and only have to wonder whether we have the capacity to apply what we know in order to promote more orderly and peaceful solutions to problems that have too often led to violence.
In his classic Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World: Population, Change and State Breakdown in England, France, Turkey, and China, 1600-1850 (25th Anniversary edition, 2016), Goldstone argued that human populations exceeding carrying capacity, and incapable of solving this problem, led to rebellions and revolutions in the four regions of his study. One might add the Classic Maya, the inhabitants of Easter Island, and a number of other cultures to this list. As historians, we are called to face harsh realities, as well as look for success stories and achievements. This can be a sad and daunting task at times, but it remains an ennobling one. We just do not know whether confronting problems will bear fruitful solutions, or be ignored like the warnings of Cassandra.
We are students of human behavior across time and space. In the midst of darkness, we are called to cast some light.
P.S. All this might help you understand why I am involved with Seshat: Global History Databank.