We’re not so smart, after all

I used to study history with a smug sense that we, in our advanced state of technological and intellectual development, would never have made the mistakes I could see they had made, from my lofty position at the peak of human civilization.

When we were taught about the American Civil War, even the heavily romanticized and State’s Rights revisionist version that infused the South of the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed obvious to me that had my generation been around in those days, we would have easily avoided the tragic and ruinous war. There would have been no Lost Cause, because we would have worked things out calmly and peacefully. The rational majority would have been smart enough to ignore the hotheads, both Rebel and Yankee.

The Roman Empire would never have fallen if we had been in charge. We would have avoided the excesses of the later years. And we would have been smart enough not to use lead for our plumbing. (A popular theory was that Rome went crazy from accidental lead poisoning.)

Lately, though, I’m not so sure. My recent readings of history suggest a more cynical view of human civilization.

Take Easter Island as an example. We were taught that the island famous for the huge stone statues was depopulated because the people fought among themselves, failed to manage their food supplies, and chopped down all their trees so that the island would no longer support the population.

It seemed to me the ultimate example of people being killed by their own stubborn ignorance. If modern Western-educated people were in a similar situation, they would have quickly seen the environmental threats and acted to preserve their forests and to cultivate more food.

But we can’t even manage to agree whether the earth is warming, and if it is, whether it’s a bad thing, and if it is, whether we can do anything about it. Our science seems definitive, but a fairly large number of people dismiss the science as politically or economically motivated. The longer we argue, the fewer options we have to change things, if they can be changed, or to prepare for the inevitable challenges if they can’t.

And many people seem to think that, if they just throw enough refutations (real or imagined) around, the consequences won’t be real. Sort of how the East Islander must have felt when he chopped down that last tree while congratulating himself that those smart guys didn’t know what they were talking about.

Sometimes you wonder whether we’ve been drinking water from lead pipes again.


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