Month: February 2016

1493 and the Future

OK, so what does 1493 have to do with the future? You might say it is like the flap of the butterflies wing causing a tornado miles away. Hopefully you are familiar with that analogy and it doesn’t need to be explained. 1493 is a book that talks about events in human history and the unforeseen ecological impacts they had, and the unforeseen impacts that these ecological changes had on humans. It is a rather amazing book.

But the general point is, that even with all the scientific tools we have now, we don’t have perfect knowledge of what our current actions will have on the future. Either for the environment or for humans. It would be nice if the doubters of global warming would read this book and realize how¬†devastating unintended consequences can be. It would be better to be prudent even if you don’t believe in global warming even though all the science points in that direction.


When Europeans started moving around the globe, they brought hitchhikers. In many ways, these hitchhikers had more of an impact on the newly discovered parts of the world than the humans did. Between the two, it was often a lethal one two punch.

Who were these hitchhikers? Insects, pigs, cows, horses, bacteria, viruses, worms and more. The one with the biggest impact were probably malaria and yellow fever. Yellow fever is caused by a virus and malaria by a parasite called Plasmodium which single celled but is not a bacteria. Neither existed in the Americas but mosquitoes who could harbor them did exist. So when the Europeans came, and also brought some African slaves, the mosquitoes bit them and then started transferring the diseases throughout the Americas.

Conquering the Americas

Before these diseases, many parts of the Americas were more densely populated than much of Europe. The native people aggressively farmed and shaped the land but in ways that were different and therefore not familiar to Europeans so they didn’t always recognize what they were seeing. By some estimates 90% of the native population was wiped out by disease and the culture was altered by this disaster. There weren’t many people left to fight the Europeans when they showed up.

Why Africans were chosen for Slavery

On top of that, it became so deadly for everyone that it caused a number of changes in the way the colonization proceeded. Some of the native population had been enslaved and used for labor. Sometimes these slaves were purchased from other natives in exchange for knives, guns, and other metal implements. They also brought in indentured servants. However, the death rate was up to 80%. It was much lower in African slaves, so the importing of African slaves exploded.

Little Ice Age

One odd twist was know as the Little Ice Age. It was global warming in reverse. It is surmised that the Little Ice Age occurred because of the malaria and yellow fever and other diseases killing so many of the native Americans. Many fields which once existed grew over at this time because no one was around to tend them. So all over the Americas there was a large increase in the amount of forest and this led to a cooling of the planet.

Social Institutions

The development of social institutions such as government, legal, administrative and anything else you can think of also seemed to depend on where malaria was and wasn’t. In New England, Europeans settled there and developed strong social institutions. In Central America, many of the colonies ended up being solely extractive. The Europeans tried to settle the lands but it became such a death trap that most just managed the properties from afar and saw it only as a place to get profit from. They did nothing to build up the institutions. In one Central American country, when it gained independence in the 1970s, its first university had only been founded a few years before and all the other institutions were equally shaky.

And all of this is just the effect from diseases. We haven’t even gone in to the other creatures and plants’ impacts. We will do that another time.