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What Man Can Learn from History

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What Man Can Learn from History

Throughout millennia, mankind has lived out a conundrum that persists today: incredible advancement while being plagued by the same problems of war, famine and disease. Yet the record of the past contains a reason for hope.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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How easy it is to forget how far mankind has come! Yes, there was advancement from stone to steel, carriage to car, ox-drawn plow to diesel tractor. But we seem desensitized to humanity’s recent rapid-fire record of progress.

Think back to the fledgling days of the space race. There was Sputnik’s crackly “ping ping” in 1957, and the first American “astrochimp” in 1961. The public devoured every bit of news, and made heroes out of each man that rocketed into the heavens. Even in the 1980s, long after the first feet pressed into moon powder, most stopped whatever they were doing to watch a space shuttle launch.

Space exploration’s novelty soon wore off, with many in 2009 ignoring a historic rescue mission 350 miles above Earth’s surface.

The event marked a crowning achievement in man’s creative genius, and shined as a hopeful beacon in the tumultuous first decade of the new millennium. A crew of seven on Space Shuttle Atlantis breathed life into an ailing Hubble Space Telescope, the invaluable device that has helped man better understand his place in the cosmos. This singular instrument has allowed scientists to examine dark energy and black holes, witness the birth and death of stars, and determine the age of the universe for the first time—about 13.75 billion years.

During what was called Servicing Mission 4, astronauts had to brave minus 454-degree Fahrenheit temperatures for five spacewalks to replace a piano-sized camera, loose a stuck bolt, and switch out electronics cards (which had never before been attempted).

When one stops to consider this feat, it is stunning. Not only is man capable of building such a telescope, but he can also upgrade it—while floating in space.

Even though there were many triumphant achievements during the first three spacewalks, the fourth turned herculean. A handrail in the way of the repairs refused to come loose—something that had never happened during years of practice. Immediately, technicians, engineers and the astronauts themselves scrambled to find a work-around solution.

Realize what was at stake. Failure meant not replacing the spectrograph on Hubble, an instrument that deciphers the colors of the telescope’s images. A mere handrail stood in the way of any more iconic images of galaxy arms speckled with pinks and blues, ethereal greens of star-nursery pillars, dark magentas of the Horsehead Nebula.

With all this on the line, mission control told the astronauts there was only one choice: brute force. The spacewalker gripped the handrail with his bulky glove and yanked hard. The rail gave, and the entire mission ended up a resounding success.

TNASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage (STSCI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Throughout this arduous adventure, astronauts were often bathed in a pale blue light emanating from below. From the vantage point of space, this glowing orb appears beautifully—with spiraling clouds, royal blue oceans, and red-clay continents.

Yet in reality, the planet of seven billion inhabitants is fraught with problems: rogue states rushing for nuclear weapons, governments toppling throughout the Middle East, nations teetering on the brink of agricultural and economic collapse.

How strange! Man can rescue a space telescope while zipping around the earth at 17,500 mph, yet terrible drug-resistant disease strains continue to worsen. He can replace a jumbo-sized camera able to peer to the edges of the known universe, yet remains on the brink of a global food crisis. He can travel into space, yet the planet’s economy stands on a razor’s edge.

Over the last 10 years, the span of The Real Truth magazine’s publication, man has made incredible advances in fields of science (the discovery that the universe is teeming with Earth-sized, habitable planets!) and technology (many now carry palm-sized computer smartphones!).

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Adapting to dry conditions: A Nigerian woman digs a trench to collect rainwater near the village of Tibiri (May 28, 2012).

Yet during the same period, his old foes, long thought eradicated, have been re-emerging with renewed fury—war, famine, disease and environmental catastrophes.

Each of these predicaments now carries a global tone. This means global consequences.

But the plights of interconnectivity carry a silver lining. For the first time, man can survey the entire planet and see where his practices are detrimental to humankind. In addition, he can comb the pages of history to learn from the trial and error of his ancestors.

Man stands at a crossroads. Civilizations have been down this path before and failed, with George Santayana’s famed words landing with a resounding thud: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

What can we learn from the templates of failure throughout history? What must we learn?

Global Village

Before delving into historical examples, the stage must be set for 21st-century problems facing mankind. These demonstrate an emphatic need to closely examine civilizations past.


Disease is a perfect example. After World War II, scientists hoped antibiotics would put an end to deadly bacterial infections (such as Staphylococcus aureus) and increase the chances of recovery from invasive surgery. Yet widespread misuse has forced us to combat even more potent, drug-resistant superbugs, such as MRSA and C. diff.

Then there are the new scourges such as swine flu and West Nile virus, and stronger strains of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, and diphtheria. On top of this, air travel makes each new virus a potential pandemic.

A worldwide food crisis has been forestalled for decades due to the use of pesticides and hybrid seeds—but this has taken a devastating toll on soil quality. Monoculture farming, never allowing fields to rest, and overdependence on irrigation add to the potential for catastrophe.

Time magazine boiled down the problem: “There are two key issues. One is the loss of soil productivity. Under a business as usual scenario [continued detrimental farming practices], degraded soil will mean that we will produce 30% less food over the next 20-50 years. This is against a background of projected demand requiring us to grow 50% more food, as the population grows and wealthier people in countries like China and India eat more meat, which takes more land to produce weight-for-weight than, say, rice.

“Second, water will reach a crisis point. This issue is already causing conflicts in India, China, Pakistan and the Middle East and before climate change and food security really hit, the next wars are likely to be fought over unsustainable irrigation. Even moderately degraded soil will hold less than half of the water than healthy soil in the same location. If you’re irrigating a crop, you need water to stay in the soil close to the plant roots. However, a staggering paper was published recently indicating that nearly half of the sea level rise since 1960 is due to irrigation water flowing straight past the crops and washing out to sea.”

Worldwide crop failures deliver a one-two punch: they threaten the West’s increasingly globalized food supply and spell a drop in revenue in poorer exporter nations.

In addition, despite billions of dollars in aid, permanent pockets of famine persist. Ethiopia, which is worse off in some ways than when it was brought to the world’s attention in the 1980s, is one tragic example.

The worst drought in 60 years struck the nation in 2011. The year of 2012 was little different for the Horn of Africa region, and 2013 promises more of the same.

Over the last 30 years, farm production in Ethiopia has fallen despite the population doubling. Continual crop failure means it must rely largely on aid groups for survival.

Adding insult to injury, the global climate is changing (whether manmade or not)—with “Frankenstorm” Hurricane Sandy a recent example. The immediate impact of other natural disasters also continues to worsen (think Haiti’s earthquake, an Icelandic volcano shutting down Europe, and Japan’s tsunami turned nuclear meltdown).

Tying everything together is the tight-knit global economy. The prime example of this was the 2008 economic collapse that wiped out roughly 40 percent of Americans’ wealth and upended the global market. Europe perhaps fared the worst from this event, with Greece, Portugal and Spain speeding toward bankruptcy.

The precursors for large-scale war continue to grow. Food is scarce, money tight, and natural resources dwindling—raising the question: how long before a nation uses a nuclear weapon again? Indeed, the end of the Cold War postponed this issue coming to a head, but one misstep could trigger a manmade extinction event. Roughly 14 nations currently house nuclear devices.

Today’s global village is like no previous civilization. No one nation or power bloc can collapse in isolation. If China, Europe or the U.S. suffer, so does the rest of the world.

Disease. Crop failures. Weather upsets. Economic depression. War. These are the same factors that have brought down history’s greatest civilizations. Therefore, we must learn from the track record of mankind.

Cautionary Tales

One classic example of a society’s collapse is Easter Island. Today, it is a near-treeless, 63-square-mile patch of land in the Pacific Ocean, 2,200 miles west of Chile. It has a single defining characteristic—its towering Moai figures. Most everyone can identify these iconic multi-ton statues cut from stone, with staring eyes and elongated features.

The Polynesian nation of Easter Island has become a metaphor for the crises facing mankind—a microcosm for the era of globalization.

The parallels ring with clarity for us today:

Easter Island is all by itself in the Pacific—Earth is a planet all by itself in space.

Polynesian settlers must have seen that they were tearing down the last tree—mankind can survey the world through the Internet and satellite communication and see the destruction it is causing.

Both Easter Island and modern manmade catastrophes spark the same question: why do we never stop ourselves?

Surprisingly, Easter Island was once a lushly forested subtropical paradise. The nation supported a prosperous and complex society of up to 30,000 people.

The climate was well suited for habitation; three long-dormant volcanoes left rich deposits of fertile soil across the terrain. Open grasslands covered the island in between Easter Palm forests, with trees that grew over 70 feet tall. The volcanic deposit at Rano Raraku to the southeast provided plentiful stores of rock for construction.

The tribes that migrated to the island formed a loose collective government that created a unique culture. Primarily farming and seafaring, these groups had a structured tribal society, with a leading chief and class of priests, along with farmers and tradesmen. The religious pantheon included hundreds of animalistic gods.

Chiefs raised the Moai, each weighing an average of 10 tons, to prove their status with the gods, and exercise power over their followers. The chiefs’ elite status allowed a ruling class to structure society and maintain order among tribes. Under them, vast projects were organized. Trading harvested resources from the small island encouraged construction on a broad scale. Large plantations produced food surpluses, which aided population growth. Religious worship, fueled by even larger Moai and elaborate funeral services, united the tribes.

But it all came crashing down.

An August 1995 article in Discover magazine suggested that the environmental collapse of Easter Island happened “not with a bang but with a whimper.” After several generations, islanders slowly consumed most available resources.

Forests were clear-cut for canoes, ropes and firewood. Farms producing sweet potatoes, taro and sugarcane stripped soils of available nutrients. Bird, fish and porpoise populations dwindled to extinction by overhunting. Blind to the impact that a growing population had on the environment, inhabitants used up the island’s resources until there was nothing left.

A massive migration was impossible due to the great distance from the nearest landmass. The isolated island was unable to draw needed resources from elsewhere; it was forced to continue on its own. Populations, now too large for the island to support, soon began to die out. Easter Island descended into civil war as chiefs-turned-warlords vied for leftover resources.

Internal conflict and violence turned into anarchy, as the only way to survive was to steal food from opposing tribes. The wars hindered communication and made transportation between tribes almost impossible. The island was no longer unified—cooperation between peoples ceased. The greed of individuals nullified any attempt at an organized solution to the now catastrophic problems.

The islanders’ use of resources was not sustainable. Great amounts of forest were cut for materials to erect the gigantic Moai. While scientists today do not fully understand how these ancient peoples raised the monoliths, most agree that strong lumber and rope were necessary. This, coupled with unchecked growth, eventually led to a food shortage. The tribes sank into a starvation-fueled population decline.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, who wrote Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail defines the earmarks of collapse as a combination of five broad factors: (1) human environmental impact; (2) natural changes in climate; (3) hostile neighbor nations; (4) loss of allies; and (5) breakdown or shortsightedness of economic and social institutions.

The early civilization of Sumer on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which the Bible defines as near the location of the Garden of Eden, is a clear example of agricultural breakdown. Situated in an area once known as the Fertile Crescent, the region experienced abundant harvests. This led to incredible advancements, including the first written language, cuneiform.

Many archaeologists point to aggressive irrigation tactics (leading to salinization of the soil) as a major cause for the fall of this empire. Look at the Mesopotamia region today, which was home to the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Chaldean empires. Even thousands of years later, the area remains desolate!

Rome is another textbook case of collapse from great heights. A lethal cocktail of problems caused its demise around AD 476.

The Roman Empire followed the formula for collapse: (1) they pushed their soil to its limits, sparking famine and leading to disease pandemics, such as the Black Death, smallpox and measles; (2) a climate shift caused too much rain, which routinely ruined crops; (3) a dwindling Roman army forced emperors to hire Germanic tribes to defend their borders; (4) a band of these mistreated mercenaries, the Visigoths, later conquered the weakened city; (5) even at its lowest point, the citizenry attended extravagant chariot races and gladiator battles.

The Dark Ages followed on the heels of Rome’s fall!

Time and again, the cycle repeats. Incredible advancement, terrible decline.

In his book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright demonstrated the truth of the anonymous quote, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

He wrote, “The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions.”

No Easy Solutions

In all this, there is an elephant in the room—a hulking, belligerent creature with stamping feet and flaring nostrils. Modern economic, environmental and governmental systems have deeply entrenched themselves over scores of years. This Gordian knot of problems means there is no simple one-step solution.

This is not an issue of left versus right on the political spectrum. The negative aspects of capitalism are not solely to blame, as Communist-slanted nations fair no better. Fascism crashed and burned. Pure socialism came and went. We have tried manmade governments of every shape and size—all with mixed results and negative effects.

These governmental experiments have left their deep, problematic roots throughout the globe. Even seemingly “black and white” matters carry an almost impossible complexity. Pick any issue and you will run into a mess of problems.

For example, should Brazil’s Amazon rainforest be cut for lumber and burned for farmland? Almost anyone in the West would immediately reply, “No, rainforests are the ‘lungs’ of the earth!”

Yet putting a halt to logging in that nation would destroy uncounted thousands of Brazilian jobs, leaving families impoverished. Right or wrong, the ban would hurt Western banks (who invest in the region) and likely significantly affect world food prices.

Reducing energy consumption in a major metropolitan area is another thorny issue. New York City was constructed during decades when unchecked electrical/fossil fuel was the norm. This raises a number of questions: Can New York City be retrofitted to be sustainable? Would that be cost effective? Does the government have the funds to take on such an overhaul? Would New Yorkers be willing to change their lifestyles? Most important, could such a shift be made without fatally disrupting the global economy?

Now, what about the areas on Earth with the worst air pollution: Mexico City, Hong Kong, Beijing, New Delhi?

Another example of an entrenched system that thwarts easy solutions is the democratic process. Politicians may honestly promise positive change until they are elected, but they are often quickly stymied by a system steeped in red-tape bureaucracy and bitter partisanship.

Summed up, all global problems require tough—seemingly impossible—choices.

Collision Course?

The lesson of Easter Island bears repeating: how could the person cutting down the last tree, likely knowing it was the final one, go through with it?

In the television special “National Geographic: Collapse,” which was based on Dr. Diamond’s book, Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert stated, “What’s so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it. The majority of people on this planet, they’re overwhelmed with concerns about their immediate well being.”

Despite the track record of history, many scholars, thinkers and scientists cling to hope.

Dr. Diamond believes there are about a dozen major factors threatening modern man. All 12 of these must be solved. Even if 11 problems are addressed perfectly, the 12th would still bring utter disaster. Yet seeing certain positive changes across the globe, and having the record of history as a guide, he is cautiously optimistic about humanity’s future.

In 2004’s A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright said, “We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.”

Science sees hope in advancements in knowledge and technology. Those in the field of guided evolution hope to take control of the “evolutionary process” through genetic selection and engineer a “new and improved” human being. Similarly, synthetic biology has high hopes.

Science in Society defines this area of research: “Synthetic biologists can create new organisms by inserting custom-designed DNA, or genetic information, into living microbial cells. This DNA is tailored by researchers so the organism will perform a specific function. Far from engineering the fearsome, mutant creatures that populate the world of science fiction, however, they plan to construct organisms—for now at the microscopic level—that can do anything from manufacturing disease-fighting drugs to creating ultra-clean biofuel.”

These endeavors have the potential to bring out the worst in human nature. Engineering life could lead to horrific disasters if in the wrong hands.

The 2011 documentary “Surviving Progress,” based on Mr. Wright’s book, featured cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus: “One of the challenges…that faces the human species is we are more and more in a position of acting like gods…This is [going to] be even more true with genetic technologies, we’re [going to] be able to manipulate other species, and eventually ourselves.”

Also in “Surviving Progress,” award-winning author and scholar Robert Wright stated that man must quickly develop the moral side to being a “god”: “If we don’t develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we’ll [mishandle] the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don’t get too bad, because if they do it’ll come back to haunt us. So you know, kind of half of being God has just been handed to us and then the question is whether we’ll master the other half of being God, the moral half.”

He continued, “The bad news is that the enlightenment is…sometimes hard to come by because of human nature…”

Hope for the Future?

In the end, man must learn this stark lesson from history: human nature stands in the way of real peace, abundance and happiness. It blocks man from true moral understanding. It is the root cause of humanity’s problems.

Many thinkers, scientists and leaders have concluded this, but feel powerless to modify how society thinks and acts.

Amazingly, efforts in fields such as synthetic biology show that man would rather attempt to change nature itself than address his own human nature!

In his 1860 Cooper Union Address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.”

The same is true today. During a lecture for non-profit group TED, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated, “Government is essentially today learning to go with the grain of human nature.”

Yet most cannot concisely describe what this nature is.

Unknown to almost all, there is an instruction manual for mankind that succinctly defines human nature. The Bible plainly outlines man’s true colors—helping make sense of the modern world. This is just one reason The Real Truth uses this Book as the lens through which to view current events.

The Bible begins to define the human condition almost immediately. The first chapter of Genesis reveals why “god-like” aspirations are deep-seated. Notice: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (vs. 26).

The notion of mankind having a mastery over nature is also immediately addressed. Verse 26 continues, “…and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Genesis 2 describes the Garden of Eden and two symbolic trees: “the tree of life” and “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (vs. 9).

These trees represent two opposite ways of life, which can be summed up as give and get. The “tree of life” describes a life of genuine, outflowing concern for others. The tree of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes a way of experimenting to discern what is “good” and what is “evil.”

In the account, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of get.

Look at human nature throughout history. Civilizations have regularly implemented seemingly “good” solutions (almost exclusively devised for personal gain), later to reap unintended “evil” consequences.

This way of get—human nature—can be summarized in four words: vanity, jealousy, lust and greed. All of today’s problems stem from these four characteristics.

Yet does this mean mankind is doomed to fail?

Ultimate History Lesson

Think back to the awesome advancement over the last 10 years, namely the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. Due to the nature of light, when man peers into the night sky, the stars, nebulas and galaxies he sees appear as they existed in the past—sometimes millions or billions of years ago. It is a sort of ultimate history lesson!

Throughout time, there has remained a sense that the purpose of mankind is much grander than the here and now. This is never so evident as when gazing at a star-filled sky on a clear night, away from city lights—or when viewing Hubble’s jaw-dropping images. Man looks to the universe for his future, whether to see planets he will one day explore or to understand the basic laws of science governing all things.

Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt used the night sky as a meditative tool. Often he took walks on the grounds of his estate under a starry night sky with longtime friend American naturalist William Beebe. In his The Book of Naturalists, Beebe recounted that Roosevelt and he would often search the night sky for the faint spot of light known as the Andromeda Galaxy. When it was found, one of them would recite, “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of one hundred million Galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.”

After a moment of silence, Roosevelt would grin and say, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”

Consider how true this is today—a time in which astronomers estimate there are hundreds of billions of galaxies total!

In the Old Testament, Israel’s King David captured this feeling in the book of Psalms: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man, that You are mindful of him?” (8:3-4).

This question’s answer is the single most exciting theme found within the Bible. It reveals a deeper, hopeful purpose for mankind.

The New Testament book of Hebrews quotes David and then begins to answer his question: “What is man, that You are mindful of him?…You [God] crowned him with glory and honor, and did set him over the works of Your hands: You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him” (2:6-8).

At first these verses may seem to contradict each other. God put “all things in subjection under” man, but “we see not yet all things put under him.” Put another way, in the future, all things will be put under the rulership of man, but this has not yet happened.

The Moffatt translation of the Bible renders the Greek word for “all things” as “the universe.” Man is to rule over the entire universe!

Yet to do so, he must first learn the way of give, which can be done by building the character of God, as seen within the Bible and throughout Creation. Human nature must be overcome, and genuine outflowing concern must take its place.

Although man has moments of incredible ingenuity, human nature is holding him back. Imagine how much more he could achieve if vanity, jealousy, lust and greed came to an end!

For many more details about mankind’s incredible future and the grand purpose for human existence, read the enlightening and inspiring free book The Awesome Potential of Man.

Despite the bleak picture seen in headlines today, man is not doomed to fail—he is destined to succeed!

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