Optimism is realism. That may be a hard concept to embrace in the middle of a rapidly worsening global pandemic and a crushing economic crisis. But history shows it is the right one. In fact, without that point of view, there very likely would not be any history at all.
There is a story I have told before — in a book, a book talk and, as my daughters will attest, far too often over the dinner table — of an exchange I had with my dad when I was a teenager. I had just watched a documentary on what might come in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and it was very dark. One hundred million casualties in the United States alone. And, as the narrator put it, the end of life as we know it.
Gloomily, I went looking for my dad, and when I found him, he saw I was upset. He asked what was wrong, and I described the documentary to him. He was a scientist and a bit of a professional contrarian who took perhaps too much joy in challenging not just conventional wisdom but almost any idea until he was sure it held water. “One hundred million people could die!” I said with all the frustration teenagers typically have for obtuse parents. And his response was, “Well, during the Black Death, a third of Europe’s population died, and the result was the Renaissance.”
Horrors forced survivors to adapt
This was an impossibly frustrating statement, but over the years that have followed, I understood not just what he was getting at, but that he was right. And as I examined the facts, I also learned that he was downplaying the severity of those plague years in the 14th century and glossing over the story of the positive consequences that resulted.
To begin with, by some estimates, half of Europe’s population was killed between 1347 and 1351. China also suffered a devastating fate. Some cities lost as much as 80% of their inhabitants. Naturally, grief and loss were its first by-products, and in an era that took place before the scientific revolution, seeking supernatural answers and engaging in scapegoating were other immediate consequences. Entire Jewish communities, blamed for “poisoning the wells” were slaughtered. A massive economic crisis also resulted.
But the plague also made labor scarcer and gave workers much more leverage. The feudal system sustained a devastating blow that led ultimately to its decline and eventual disappearance, as landlords had to negotiate with workers and raise their wages. People moved to find better living conditions. Labor saving innovations became a necessity. The seeds of the middle class were planted.
A new emphasis was placed on understanding human anatomy, and medical science began a centuries-long climb to effectiveness and respectability. And while the art of the era was unsurprisingly often rather grim, it was this period that, in fact, ushered in the first stirrings of the Renaissance with Boccaccio (who built on the efforts to write in the language of the people of his near-contemporary Dante) and Petrarch.
There is no minimizing the horrors of the Black Death. But for those who lived through it, survival demanded innovation and adaptation. We do not face anything so severe. But we do know that throughout history, serious crises resulted in innovation born of the optimism that somehow society would live on and ultimately recover. This is true of subsequent outbreaks of disease that produced discovery and migration. It also came of wars and other natural disasters.
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The potato blight that struck Ireland and parts of Europe in the 1840s, and may have resulted in a million deaths from starvation, drove the immigration that fueled American growth, accelerated the industrial revolution and, in turn, helped lead to the rethinking of the roles of workers, aristocrats, capital and labor. Indeed, immigrants forced from their homes by war, disaster, political turmoil and persecution — from Levi Strauss to Andy Grove — have turned optimism in the face of crisis into benefits for all of us.
World War I helped accelerate change in how societies perceived the role of women and led to the first modern stirrings of a desire to find ways to preserve the peace between nations without resorting to war. It also led to medical innovations like donating and stockpiling blood. The Spanish flu that followed the end of the war, and may have caused 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide, also resulted in a renewed appreciation for public health efforts — know-how and lessons which we are unevenly applying today.
Coronavirus lessons from history
We have seen similar consequences in our own recent past, whether it was developing ways to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks in the sky after 9/11 or laws to make markets safer and more transparent in the wake of the crash of 2008. Both are examples that produced mixed results, but the effort to seek positive change was clear to all.
We can’t know how long the current crisis will last. But we can draw some comfort from the lessons of the past — because as dark as events have gotten, similar crises since the dawn of time have resulted not just in pain and loss, but in lessons and creativity that have fueled human progress.
We can already see innovation in the use of social media and e-commerce to maintain society even as many are forced into isolation. Talk to your friends about how they and their children are using Zoom to connect. Artists are finding creative ways to reach audiences even as theaters are shut down. Many are struggling, but new ideas continue to be born.
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Politicians being who and what they are, it is less certain that government will learn the lessons of the failures that made this crisis so much worse than it had to be. But because of the obvious high cost of ignoring past lessons regarding planning and preparation for epidemics like this one, we can only hope it is less likely we repeat these devastating mistakes in the future.
There are no guarantees. You would think that science would prevail over superstition in this day and age or that after the SARS debacle, China would have learned the dangers of suppressing the truth about the spread of an epidemic. And we know that didn’t happen. But we can hope, and we can push for change.
And history tells us that just may work. Because, after millennia of catastrophes large and small, hope and change are the reasons civilization is still with us today. We each have a role to play in this. We can despair. Or we can focus on the better world we want to make when we get to the far side of this latest crisis. We have the most powerful forces of human nature on our side, forces that trace their origins to our most basic survival instincts and to the aspirations of each and every one of us.
David Rothkopf is CEO of the Rothkopf Group and host of "Deep State Radio." His latest book, "Traitor: A History of Betraying America from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf