Creative Destruction – Cedar Sanderson
I was introduced to this term this week when I was invited to create a presentation for a panel of this title. I’d never heard it before, and didn’t know precisely what it was all about, but the summary I was given sparked my imagination.
What can destructive forces create? What can they precipitate from the solution, sparking the coalescence of something new, and sometimes unpredictable, from human civilization catalyzed with tragedy?
I began my presentation with the Black Death in Europe. It’s the little things in life; that kill us and change our world. Fleas, in this case, carrying a disease between rats and humans. The numbers are soft, but estimates range around 25 million deaths from that epidemic, during the time it raged hotly over the continent, and many hundreds of thousands more in the centuries after. However, in the wake of all the death and destruction, there was change.
It is arguable that the Black Death led to the fall of serfdom, as labor was no longer readily and cheaply available – there simply weren’t enough bodies left standing. The plague led to the fall of the Roman Catholic Empire as it was, and the rise of Protestantism. And in a burst of pure creativity of the Arts, the Black Death led to the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and the glory that was that movement in art and literature.
But it was not the first time the plague had touched Western Civilization. Around 600 ad, the Justinian plague had struck, felling what was left of the Roman Empire, and establishing the course of the initial burst of European world domination. Both pandemics were much, much later confirmed to have the same originator, Yersinia pestis. It is the microscopic things.
There’s a song, which I can’t remember all the lyrics to (and I don’t know who performs it) but this much I recall: War! What is it good for?
The answer is deeply complex. I will leave the political and social considerations aside to talk about the benefits to medicine. Indeed, most modern medicine has been altered in some way by battlefield hospital needs. But during the Crimean War, death skyrocketed. Not from wounds received in battle, but disease. Florence Nightingale, who most people think of as the Mother of Nursing, was also responsible for mothering another field of medicine as she plotted when and why men were dying, and ferreted out the correlations and causations. It was war that led Florence Nightingale to leave her comfortable home and give birth to Epidemiology.
But a virus can also end a war. World War I, or the Great War, might have dragged on and on into the Eternal War, had not the influenza pandemic of 1918 taken all the wind out of the warring nation’s sails with the deaths of millions of relatively young and healthy people. And in an example of how telling the truth can sometimes get you in trouble: Spain was initially blamed for the pandemic, because they were a neutral nation, and their reporters were allowed to talk about the sickness, unlike those of France, Germany, and the US.
And enduring myth – one that is still taught in schools, is that disease helped conquer the ‘New World’ (in reality, an old one, just like buying a used car, you still call it the New Car) as the European explorers brought previously unknown diseases with them to the shores. The reality is that the Incas fell to a vastly inferior Spanish force because they had been racked with a ten-year drought, and a plague epidemic. Many other diseases were endemic to the region, and famine was Death’s stalking-horse long before Europe got involved.
In return for the new diseases, the trade went both ways. Europeans took home many new and interesting things from the ‘New World’ including foodstuffs. Sometime later, after the aristos with their financial interest in marketing the new foods made potatoes popular (Marie Antoinette, in an effort to popularize the potato, wore potato flowers in her hair), the inevitable happened. Overreliance on one crop, and that crop was struck down with a plant epidemic – the potato blight. Back to the ‘New World’ only now it was starving, desperate men and women, serving terms of indenturement that was virtually slavery, sold into servitude by the failure of a food crop.
We rarely consider what would happen should a viroid (a plant virus) get loose and strike down one of the ‘staff of life’ foodstuffs that virtually the entire world depends on. The Staff of Life was almost kicked out from under us once, when wheat rust threatened to diminish the food produced by the US and shipped globally. Only through the efforts of a small team including Norman Borlaug (the Father of the Green Revolution), a process that took fourteen years, was wheat bred into a more resistant variety and stopped the threat of the rust. Borlaug went on to help countries like Pakistan and India develop their agriculture to the point of self-sufficiency, and that came from the threatened ruin of wheat rust.
I ended by talking about telomeres. The heterochromatic caps that protect the tips of our chromosomes, they do not replicate because they are so compressed, and as they wear away with age, we slowly self-destruct. Yet in that destruction, is there not also creativity? Would we be so driven to write, to create art, to live with passion, if we knew we had more time? In our own destruction, we create new life, and know that life is good, and will endure.