Today v. Tomorrow: The Running Ostrich

running ostrich

Jobs that focus on short-term fixes today, at the possible expense of many tomorrows, outnumber jobs that focus on long-term outcomes by as much as 16 to 1.  I call this the strategy of the running ostrich, as pictured above with a bucket on his head.  See table:

Discipline Definition Jobs available
(LinkedIn, 1/1/2018)
Sociology the study of human society at a given period in time 7760
Anthropology the study of human beings and their ancestors through time 1405
Clinical and medical genetics provides counseling or treatment for genetic diseases prevalent today 7760 + 2216
Population genetics study of how population traits will change in the future based on selective pressures today 567

The running ostriches (engineers, physicians, politicians, military strategists, sociologists, etc.) are fascinated by how things work, and want things to work or “run” very well.  Today.  It is an affront to their efforts that things might work differently tomorrow and no longer run well.  That is at worst just another in a long line of challenges they will “solve.”

To suggest that the well running of things today might actually cause them to run poorly tomorrow is a fighting insult, whether one is talking about climate change or population growth or social upheaval.  It is long forgotten that originally oil-based power was orders of magnitude cleaner than wood-soot and horse manure for the same amount of heat, light or travel.  And rarely considered that solar power and electric cars may have some even greater consequences unforeseen by opportunistic social planners today.  And certainly don’t mention that treating genetic diseases will harm the genome, or paying for poverty will buy more poverty.

The Problem

The trouble is, even those who study the evolution of the future fail to account for themselves.  They fail to see they ignore the fact that they must ensure their own success to have any impact on the future.  They do not seize material or political power, assuming they stand “outside” the system they are studying.  But they are part of it.

An Example

A case in point is the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal.  He saw that the Roman Empire was destroying all the “barbarian” tribes.  Carthage did not.  It’s colonies merely traded with them.  Romans first established vassals, then came back to enslave, and finally committed genocide against any resistance left.  Hannibal saw that Rome must be stopped.  He saw the long-term consequences of Roman aggression for the evolution of the human population.

But Hannibal did not see himself as participating in that same human evolution.  He thought he could take a one-time action, standing outside human history, to intervene in it.  He was brilliant in its execution.  He defeated 70,000 Roman crack troops with far fewer soldiers, a band of allied tribes who did not even all speak the same language.  It was a remarkable feat.

But Hannibal did not see the need to return victorious to Carthage, to seize political power, perhaps to become an emperor.  And so Carthage, founded by a mythical queen on female values, preferred not to make war, to leave alone and be left alone.  Their Senate (yes, they had a senate like Rome) could did not support Hannibal.

What was the outcome?  Rome imposed a punitive treaty and war debt.  But after the debt was paid, they continued to harbor evil intentions toward Carthage.  Carthage actually started none of the wars with Rome.  The 2nd Punic War was started by Hannibal from Spain.  But Cato the Elder ended each of his speeches, no matter what the subject, saying: “Further, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.

And destroy they did, leveling the city in 146 BC killing around 150,000 civilians and enslaving a further 50,000.

The Sins of Rome

At what cost to the world was Hannibal’s idealism and shortsightedness?

Not only did Rome end Carthage, but many other peoples.  And what it didn’t end it enslaved or drove into violent resistance.  In the First Jewish War Rome killed 1.2 million Jews, and enslaved 60,000 of them for the purpose of building the Coliseum.  Over the life of the Coliseum, 400,000 people were “sacrificed” there along with a million animals.  The total gladiator deaths across the empire was 3.5 million, around 3 times the total number of deaths of Roman soldiers during the life of the empire and republic combined.

But weren’t the Carthaginians evil child sacrifice-rs?  Thanks to Rome’s leveling of the city, we can only dig up the ceremonial graves and make inferences.  The most pessimistic estimates are 25 infants per year, within weeks of birth, barely different than late term abortion.  The total could have amounted to no more than a few thousands over the entire life of Carthage.  Compare that to around ten million people killed by Rome.

What type of society was Carthage?

We cannot know what the world would be like if Carthage prevailed.  Presumably the Jews would not have been dispersed.  But the Arabs, Huns, Mongols and others would likely have come conquering just the same.  Carthage might have simply been overrun later by the Arabs.  Even the warlike Romans were overrun by various groups.  However a few points are interesting to contemplate.

According to some sources, though Carthage had slaves they did not go on slaving expeditions after about 500 BC.  (Tyre still did.)  One might suppose then that no, or fewer, slaves would have been brought to the New World.  The history of approximately half the world might be radically different, and more peaceful.

How exactly did the Carthaginians trade and “cooperate” with strangers?  Out-group vs. in-group cooperation is considered one of the strongest markets for an advanced society, capable of making a technological civilization.  Here is a remarkable description from Herodotus of Halicarnassus (about 430 B.C.) :

“The Carthaginians also say they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya (Africa) beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar). On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; if they think it represents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.

The Romans in Briton

Compare that to the way the Romans treated their “allies” in Briton.  King Prasutagus chose to become a “friend of Rome” and at first the Romans left him largely at peace, though they raided his neighbors for slaves.  He wanted to preserve this peace, and so on his death his will left his kingdom to “joint rule” between his heirs and the Roman Emperor.  The Roman tax authority Catus concluded this meant Rome owned the kingdom.  He had Prasutagus’ queen Bodica flogged and his two daughters raped to make the point.

Implications for today

  1. A lot of our laws, customs and ideas of trade or cooperation are still based on Roman ideas.  The government of the U.S. was deliberately modeled on Rome.  Our ideas of justice might be more like those of Catus than either Prasutagus or Hannibal.
  2. Our social activists today are either like Prasutagus or Hannibal.  They appease, or they think winning a few points and making alliances in the present will secure the future.
  3. We do not systematically study the evolution of the future because the past has been so horrific, we, like the ostrich, want to pretend that it doesn’t matter, that who we are was not shaped by it, and the future will not inevitably be shaped by “unwelcome consequences” of our actions.  We think the future is shaped by the “intent” of our actions.

We can sum these ideas up more succinctly:

  1. The inertial continuation of aggressive law and trade in the race of corporate dominance.
  2. The strategies by progressive factions of appeasement, alliance and one-day victories vs. consolidation of power over time.
  3. The belief that it is intent that counts, and that good outcomes engineered today will spontaneously persist without future consequence.

History seems to suggest that none of these three ideas leads to desirable outcomes.  We seem to be just a bunch of running ostriches, not looking where we are going.


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