Friday, November 10, 2006

Burn Your Boats Boys!

Ship Burning

When Cortez landed in North America, he burned his three ships and his soldiers marched -- no going back to Spain.

Right on! That'll teach the squaddies to grumble! I bet. Tough guy that Cortez - or did he know something the soldiers didn't. Namely, that he had signed on a few extra troops - Gen. Malady, Major Smallpox and Corporal Venereal Disease. It would be nice to think Cortez knew what he was doing , but it's unlikely. Most probably he was just lucky – if you call wiping out a thriving culture with a relatively small band of cut-throats lucky, that is.

Cortez was born in Spain. At the age of 19 he sailed for Hispaniola. With Diego Velazquez he conquered Cuba and settled there until 1518 when Velazquez appointed him to lead an expedition to Mexico. With his force of 700 men he landed on the coast of Mexico and founded the settlement of Veracruz. Cortez burned his ships behind him, thereby committing his entire force to survival through conquest.

Bet the troops were happy! Great move, Hernando baby! Here we are, the jolly seven hundred lined up against the whole of the Aztec nation (15 million) and you decide to burn the boats – our only means of escape! Now, that's what we call cajones! We'll follow you anywhere, Big Cajones! And, they did.

In 1520-1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city. It is estimated that between 10% and 50% of the population fell victim to this epidemic. Never mind Hernando's Hideaway – what about Hernando's Takeaway -the speed at which the invaders managed to start a smallpox epidemic is truly breathtaking. The Aztec population was halved in the sixteenth century – mostly through new diseases introduced by the Spanish. The population before the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; by 1550, the estimated population was 4 million and by 1581 less than two million. Somewhere the Aztecs seem to have misplaced 13 million people! Thus, the indigenous population of the Central Mexico Valley is estimated to have declined by more than 80% in the course of about 60 years. Now, that's what I call mortality!

If I were less than charitable, I'd guess that Cortez picked some of his minions less for their military prowess and more for their exposure to smallpox. Perhaps he saw what smallpox did to the native population during his time in Cuba. Nevertheless, the result was the complete decimation and destabilization of the Aztec civilization.

Fascinating – I hear you grumble, but where is all this leading?

To a familiar theme I'm afraid. First, a few more statistics (apologies). Only in the 19th and 20th centuries was population increase the norm. Throughout most of documented human history, population numbers have been relatively static. For example: Europe's population fell to two-thirds of its previous levels after the Black Death of 1348. That's a lot of bodies! Big Cajones favourite native-killer, smallpox is a relatively old disease. Only recently has it been considered under control. The disease is at least 3000 years old, confirmed in China and India, with a few isolated cases in North Africa. There is no mention in Europe until the 6th century. This means, obviously, it was unknown in the Americas during the Spanish incursions. Native Americans reached the continent about 12 000 years ago.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries smallpox was the most serious infectious disease in The West and accounted for a substantial proportion of deaths, especially among town dwellers. The mortality rate varied regionally, with 10% in Europe and 90% in America.

These diseases kept human populations relatively stable for millennia. Only recently has population growth become such a destabilizing influence.

To put this into perspective: new research suggests the human race was nearly wiped out 70,000 years ago, when a crisis reduced the population to about 2,000 people. In evolutionary terms, that's not a lot of people and not a lot of years! That's why we are all so closely related, genetically speaking.

And so, we come to bird flu – which is supposed to be the topic today. Told 'ya I'd get there!

We are currently waiting for the bird flu epidemic to strike. We are assured that it is only a matter of time. We are assured that it will be catastrophic. At least a million in the UK will die (that sure puts the Aztecs' suffering into perspective - don't it !). Bird Flu has become the designer disaster; chiefly because it is inevitable, at least that's what the scientists (who should know better) keep telling us. Therefore, we must gear ourselves for the coming crisis. Or, must we?

Of course, if bird flu does jump from species to species it will be a serious event. Many people will die. No amount of preparation will allow us to escape from this threat. It will be a disaster, but not on a biblical scale. Actually, compared to Major Smallpox, Private Bird Flu is a bit like a pimple on the bum of mankind – not a carbuncle.

It is a consequence of our hubris that we “must” believe that a serious natural disaster is just around the corner. What about the mega-volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park? What if the Cumbre Vieja volcano collapses into the Atlantic off Las Palmas – the resulting tsunami (5 – 8 metres would wipe out the East Coast of the U.S.)? What about civilization being plunged into a new Dark Age when the oil runs out? What about mega volcanic eruptions like those that formed the Columbia plateau or the Deccan traps? What about Global Warming, or Global Dimming or Global Thermonuclear War? It's a long list!

Fact is: unless we ascribe to the Cortez solution and burn all our boats, it's likely that it's our own arrogance that is the most likely cause of any disaster – not the myriad of unpredictable and unknowable problems waiting just around the corner.

Bird flu is something to be worried about and prepared for, but it is not likely to be the end of mankind or civilization as we know it. Get over it!

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