Domestic Affairs

Catastrophes of the Past and Future

Inequality is one of the many pervasive issues that we face today. While many people look at economic factors, political factors, and social factors as prominent means of creating more equality, one source suggests catastrophic events may play a larger role in leveling the playing field. Inequality is a broad term encompassing more specific forms, such as economic, political, or social inequality, but in the general sense, it is worth exploring because a world with more equity—where everyone has what they need to succeed—is a better world. One key reason for creating equality is to improve society, the standard of living, and ultimately happiness; so no matter what domain we are considering equality, it is better to raise those lacking to a sufficient baseline level as opposed to any alternative. Exploring this possible relation between inequality and catastrophe will help us better understand how to address inequality and make decisions concerning how we approach future catastrophes. Of the various pressing problems, we have one imminent catastrophe on our horizon. Climate change threatens to forever alter our standard way of life and requires immediate action. How will we deal with inequality and how will we respond to climate change and other catastrophes of the future? 

In an article for the Atlantic Walter Scheidel, professor of classics and history at Stanford University, asserts that the only route that leads out of inequality is one of catastrophe. He explains there are four historic methods of establishing greater equality called levelers. These levelers include war, revolution, state collapse, and epidemic. He argues that these events, such as the great famines or the bubonic plague, have brought about more equality in the past than any political institution or policy ever has, suggesting that inequality is an issue that humans may not be able to solve given the intrinsic nature of our political and economic institutions. The mechanism for creating more equality as Schiedel explains is that catastrophes had a larger effect on the rich and powerful who disproportionately accumulated resources and wealth. They had more to lose and catastrophes would bring them down to the level of subsistence—where the majority of the population existed. Even though Schiedel relies on historical evidence which is more subjective, it demonstrates a reliable trend that a lack of stability has historically led to greater equality; in this case equality of outcome. If this is true, it would mean that catastrophes could produce more equality, which would add an interesting complexity to the morals of making policy and even engaging as a citizen. Do we support a more equitable world at the cost of worsening the state of others, or do we support a more stable world at the expense of equality? This trade-off is by no means a simple one. 

This thesis that catastrophes lead to equality seems rather convincing at first, but on closer analysis, it has some flaws. The bubonic plague, famine, and other catastrophic events have indeed created more equality in the past by stripping those with most of their resources or of their life, but is this form of equality desirable? In his book “Sapiens,” Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that pre-modern times were characterized by three main threats: famine, war, and plague. These threats were pervasive, seeing as just one of them would wipe out over half of a given population. When it came to the distribution of resources, military force was the main way one acquired access. Once access was acquired, resources were divided through rudimentary social institutions. Most of these social institutions did not have any checks or balances to ensure more equality; monarchies, rulers, and bandits governed with military force, and any resource distributions ultimately were up to them. If you tear down the ruler that controls the resources, and who likely would not distribute equally (if at all), you level the playing field. Harari’s account is similar to Scheidel’s in that the form of equality is equality of outcome where those with the most resources are stripped of them, and come down to the level of average citizens. So how does this translate to modern times? 

When both Scheidel and Harrari come to address catastrophe in the modern world, they state that catastrophes are much less prevalent, seeing as our technology and social institutions have enabled us to overcome each to some extent. Whereas before war, famine, and plague were pervasive and impacted the lives of all humans, now these catastrophic events are more or less under human control. People still die from famine, plague, and war but much less than before; this development is due to human technology, scientific innovation, and social institutions as both Schiedel and Harrari note. In our modern world, when there is extreme economic inequality above normal levels, it could be remedied (to an extent) through government intervention and policy. When there is a pandemic, there are people and organizations to blame if the fallout is poorly managed. Notably, war is now rare and not as beneficial to the parties involved as it once was. Under these circumstances, where our social institutions have more power to shape the dynamics of the world, humans carry more of the burden than previously. It is true that catastrophes are rarer, yet they could still level the playing field but not in a beneficial way. We have reached a point where human institutions and decisions control most facets of the world including equality, and this has overall significantly improved the average human life above any previous standard. Given this current state, it is still possible for catastrophe to strike, and while it could create more equality of outcome—a level playing field—that outcome wouldn’t benefit any of the affected groups. A current catastrophe, such as a nuclear war, would level the playing field, but there would be a significant drop in the standard of living for the survivors, not to mention the countless deaths. So it is clear that while catastrophes can create more equality, a more desirable form of equality is when the standards of living, happiness, or whatever metric is being used is increased for the largest number of people. This form of equality is one where the have nots are raised by some standard to the level of the haves—a utilitarian stance where happiness and well-being are maximized. This distinction between beneficial forms of equality and ones that are not desirable can be further illustrated. 

The extreme effects of climate change are just on the horizon, and its many current forms of devastation are increasingly impacting the lives of millions. Increased flooding, heat waves, rising sea levels, and increased storms are some of the noticeable effects which are expected to increase in severity with no end in sight. When we ask if a disastrous, potentially society-altering event such as this would lead to more equality, the answer would be yes in that the standard of living is lowered for all but this is not the desirable form of equality. There is also the issue that different groups will be affected disproportionately, namely the lower ends of the socioeconomic hierarchy. This raises the question of how to distribute the burden of catastrophes. This is why government intervention, policy, and management come into play. 

An article by the Sierra Club discusses how climate change disproportionately affects minorities and lower-income demographics. Here in Texas during the winter freeze in 2020, the wealthier neighborhoods remained on the grid while east Austin, minority neighborhoods, and economically disadvantaged areas were hit harder. The burden of these events was placed disproportionately on those with fewer resources to deal with the blackout. In this case, it is desirable from a utilitarian standpoint for the burden to be more equally distributed to alleviate the suffering of others at the cost of minor inconveniences for those with the most resources. On a larger scale of catastrophes, we can look at the recent collapse of Venezuela due to populism and poor economic policy. 

In the 1970s, Venezuela was the richest country in South America, whereas by 2019, Venezuela’s economy toppled in half. Now it is one of the most dangerous countries in South America and 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. This is no coincidence but was due to a populist leader making poor economic policy decisions leading to extreme inflation. While state collapse due to poor decision-making does not fall under one of the great levelers of catastrophe as Schiedel discusses, what all three of these levelers have in common is that they lead to political and social collapse and the standards of living being lowered. In the case of Venezuela, we see this same collapse, which is why I would group it on the scale of catastrophes of Scheidel’s great historic levelers. What has occurred in Venezuela shows how policy does have an important role to play in keeping catastrophe at bay when possible and dealing with its fallout to alleviate suffering. In terms of equality, even if there is more equality in Venezuela, it does not matter if everyone is under the poverty line and the living conditions are like Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature. There is some implicit understanding that equality entails raising the standard of living for as many people. So while catastrophes increase equality, it is not the form of equality that maximizes the standards of living and is thus not desirable. 

While catastrophes do not lead to a desirable form of equality in current times, what is evident is that our current social apparatus is one of the most valuable human inventions and that our progress shouldn’t be taken for granted. We live in a fast-paced world that is drastically different from centuries of the past, and understanding this can motivate us to continue on this route towards progress. Understanding the fragility of progress can imbue us with a sense of respect for humanity, and serve as a cautionary tale for those who think our way of life is guaranteed. We have many large, impending threats: overpopulation, water shortage, and most importantly climate change. Our response to these problems will determine our standard of living for the centuries to come and determine on whose shoulders the burdens are rested.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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