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The socio-economic and coastal consequences of Christopher Columbus

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Chris Columbus w gigantic Anopholes

Chris Columbus pictured with a gigantic blood-thirsty mosquito. Modified from an October 9 article in Vox.com.

by Len Bahr, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: This is a highly ambitious post that covers a number of complex topics, all related to the enormous socio-political, economic, cultural and ecological impacts of one man who was commemorated yesterday (October 9, 2017) by some Americans as Columbus Day.

Columbus is blameworthy for endless social and environmental ills, but capitalism isn’t one of them

My bank wasn’t lending money yesterday, symbolic of the economic significance of Columbus Day, which has been celebrated in America since 1971, mostly by purveyors of fancier Fords, firmer mattresses, and finer flooring.

Honoring the checkered life of Christopher Columbus has many critics, including German Lopez, who described Columbus as a murderous moron in this article in Vox.com. This mimics the way our secretary of state refers to the POTUS. In 2013 Peta Lindsay authored a blistering screed about Columbus Day in Liberationnews.com. Here’s a representative quote:

To celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder. It commemorates the violent and bloody accumulation of capital for the ruling classes of Europe and, later, the U.S.

Columboosters in our unprecedentedly and unpresidentially Trump-polarized  nation contend that such arguments are hogwash, as noted in this article by Alexander Marriott in Capitalismmagazine.com. This glowing tribute to Columbus credits him with establishing capitalism in the New World. That’s ridiculous in that Columbus did what he did long before an American economy existed.

secondlawI associate capitalism with the dawn of the industrial revolution in England about 300 years ago, fueled by coal that was mined locally. The dawn of coal-powered industry was accompanied by the publication in 1776 of Scotsman Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations; the coincidental unveiling that year of Scotsman James Watt’s steam engine; and our Declaration of Independence from English taxes, supported by full or partial Scotsmen including McKean, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Witherspoon and several others.

Nevertheless, there are those who would push capitalism back to the solely solar energy time of Columbus. For example, on August 29, 2017 the distinguished political philosopher Robert Kuttner authored an article in The American Prospect berating the calls by well-intentioned but naive leftists to remove American statues of Columbus, along with monuments to pro-slavery secessionists. Here’s an exemplary quote:

Christopher Columbus symbolizes the initial invasion of European capitalism into the Western Hemisphere. Columbus initiated a centuries-old wave of terrorism, murder, genocide, rape, slavery, ecological degradation, and capitalist exploitation of labor in the Americas.

I respectfully disagree. I believe that the highly competitive and ruthless system of free market capitalism was based on and fueled by fossil energy, initially from coal and recently augmented by a global explosion of easily recoverable oil and gas. Despite the recent boom in natural gas resulting from fracking, the major decline in coal production, the global conversion to renewable energy and the predictable decline in the availability of inexpensive oil and gas shown in Fig. 1 will doubtlessly threaten the foundation of free market capitalism. This prediction is already being expressed by challenges to orthodox economics as the true cost of greenhouse gas emissions is recognized and the looming global climate change disaster becomes increasingly obvious, even to die-hard right wingers.

A September 2017 article in Future Tense by Joey Estrich and a 2015 book by Naomi Klein This changes everything; capitalism vs. the climate, exemplify changes in thinking about capitalism in a world fueled by renewable energy.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 1. Projected decline in the energy return on investment (EROI) of oil (and gas). Note the sobering implications for the cost of coastal restoration by dredging and pumping sediments.

Columbus and ecological imperialism

One of the most influential books in my eco-anthropological reading repertroire is Jared Diamond’s 1997 publication Guns, Germs and Steel, I recently discovered that Diamond’s book had been strongly influenced by the 1986 book Ecological Imperialism by Alfred Crosby, Professor Emeritus of history at UT Austin Professor. So far I’ve only read the beginning of Crosby’s book but here’s a quote about its primary theme, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Ecological imperialism is the theory advanced first by Alfred Crosby that European settlers were successful in colonization of other regions because of their accidental or deliberate introduction of animals, plants, and disease leading to major shifts in the ecology of the colonized areas and to population collapses in the endemic peoples. The many pathogens they carried with them adversely affected the native populations of North America, Australia, and Africa, and were far more destructive than weaponry: it is estimated that disease wiped out up to 90 percent of indigenous people in some locations.

Writer Charles C. Mann was also inspired by Alfred Crosby. In 2006 and 2011 respectively, Mann authored pre and post-Columbian bookends of the cultural history of the Western Hemisphere: 1491, new revelations of the Americas before Columbus and 1493, uncovering the new world Columbus created. The former describes major anthropogenic changes to the New World during the halcyon Holocene Epoch before Columbus, while North America’s land-based glaciers were melting and America’s Delta was forming.

During the 12,000 year Holocene Epoch, civilization and rudimentary agriculture took root in Mesopotamia, world sea level rose by up to 400 ft, and hunter-gathering nomads originally from Asia colonized and flourished throughout the Americas. This colonization is usually dated from 15-20 thousand years bp but an October 3, 2017 article by Adam Rutherford in TheAtlantic.com pushes the colonization of the New World back four millennia to about 24,000 years bp.

Thus, 23,500 years elapsed between the colonizers of the New World and Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Throughout this period the entire vast landscape had been devoid of human specific pathogens and therefore disease-free. This utopian condition came to a crashing end with the Caribbean arrival of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

In 1493 Mann portrays ‘Cristobal Colon’ as among the most influential figures in the entire history of civilization. His book describes an array of profound ecological and cultural changes throughout and beyond the Western Hemisphere that were set in motion by the genocidal adventures of Columbus and his copycat Conquistadors.

Columbus’ coastal legacies: mosquitoes and slavery

So what were the coastal consequences of Columbus adventures? This is where mosquitoes come into the picture. As noted above, Columbus and his European followers brought with them germs and vectors of diseases for which the indigenous Americans had no resistance.

These colonialists trafficked in slaves from West Africa, brutally transported from their homeland as human cargo in the fetid holds of slave ships, along with the mosquito species Aedes aegypti, the vector of the Yellow Fever virus. In a euphemism extraordinaire the chained passengers in these ships were described as involuntary immigrants, by current HUD secretary and biologically misinformed brain surgeon Ben Carson.

Fig. 1. Distribution of monuments erected (mostly during the 1920s) to honor slavery-defending military leaders of the Confederacy (From CNN 2017).

Fig. 2. Distribution of monuments erected (mostly during Jim Crow times) to honor military leaders of the Confederacy and to intimidate black folks (From CNN 2017).

In August 2017 CNN published a map (Fig. 2) showing the distribution of symbols of the failed Confederate cause, most of them installed during the KKK heydays of the Jim Crow era of the 1880s-1920s.

1493 includes a chapter titled Mal Aria (Bad Air), outlining the fundamental role of mosquitoes in the cultural history of the Western Hemisphere. Mann provides evidence that the Columbus expedition in 1492 may have first introduced the deadliest Malaria microsporidean parasite, Plasmodium falciparum to the America’s.

In 1493 Mann provided a map showing the overlapping ranges in North America of the deadliest malaria duo  (Figure 3). The most significant mosquito vector for malaria was Anopholes guadrimaculatus, which had been endemic for millions of years to the entire eastern half of what was to become the U.S., so this species of mosquito cannot be blamed on Columbus. The most deadly malaria pathogen, however, is the microsporidean parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which is carried by A. quadrimaculatus, could very well have hitched a ride within the bodies of Columbus’ crew in 1492.

Fig. 1. Malaria parasite Plasmodium vivax and its principal mosquito vector Anopholes quadrimaculatus (from Mann, 2011).

Fig. 3. Malaria parasite Plasmodium vivax and its principal mosquito vector Anopholes quadrimaculatus (from Mann, 2011).

Note the striking confluence of the distribution of confederate war memorials (Fig. 1) to the range of Plasmodium falciparum (Fig. 2). Native peoples imported from W. Africa were largely immune to the ravages caused by this parasite, which made their contribution to labor in what was to become the Confederate states extraordinarily valuable, especially in comparison to indentured servants from Europe or conscripted indigenous slaves.

I was particularly struck by Mann’s discussion of the multiple connections and historical significance of Anopholes quadrimaculatus and its somewhat less dangerous Yankee cousin A. vivax, with American cultural, political, military and ecological mileposts. For example, Mann infers from various information sources that these mosquitoes influenced the outcome of George Washington’s defeat of Cornwallis at Valley Forge and (one time LSU president) William T. Sherman’s defeat of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

Mann also describes the southern influences of other mosquito-borne diseases, including Yellow Fever, in Atlantic coastal cities from New Jersey south to Florida and westward along the Gulf coast. The recent appearance of the Zika virus in Miami reminded public officials that mosquito-abetted pandemic disaster could be just a genetic mutation away.

According to this 2012 article in Huffpost.com the ten most mosquito-prone American cities today include: 1. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Florida; 2. New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, Louisiana; 3. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, Texas; 4. Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, Virgnia-North Carolina; 5. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Florida; 6. Memphis, Tennessee; 7. Birmingham-Hoover, Alabama; 8. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, Georgia; 9. Jacksonville, Florida; and 10. Richmond, Virginia.

Coastal disasters: is Columbus blameworthy?

On August 30, 2017 the PBS Newshour broadcast an interview by Miles O’Brien with leading climate scientists on the implications of Hurricane Harvey, as a massive coastal flood disaster. This interview preceded the imminent calamities presented by record-breaking Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated parts of Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, respectively.

Fig. 3. Source of graphic: http://www.floodsquad.com/about.php

Fig. 4. Source of graphic: http://www.floodsquad.com/about.php

The unprecedented disaster of Hurricane Harvey in the greater Houston area unfolded on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005. On that day TheAtlantic.com posted an intriguing and provocative article by Alexis C. Madrigal on the vulnerability to human-caused disasters within the Southeastern U.S. in general and particularly to the Gulf coast region. Here are some quotes:

But examining why these moments of heroism become necessary tells a darker story about America. People don’t just find themselves in places vulnerable to flooding. They are pushed there by racial injustice, economic inequality, and short-term, profit-driven development practices. The long-term decay of the nation’s infrastructure is a direct result of policy decisions that politicians and communities make time and again. The Gulf Coast is an extreme example of this, a laboratory for what happens when you combine lax planning policies, aging flood-control mechanisms, and a geography that channels storms from the warm (and warming) waters of the Gulf into the cities that line it.

Wetland cities sitting on or near a gulf that generates some of the fiercest storms on earth are becoming more vulnerable to the “natural” hazards they’ve long battled. Their development is booming, but in the process the cities have torn out the wetlands, paved over the prairies, and built an economy (and politics) around the carbon-heavy oil and gas industries. The cities grow. Local disaster managers do the best they can to prepare. And then they wait, hoping the circulation of wind and water does not bring the worst case to them. But it will, eventually, and everyone knows this, except when they manage to forget it. This is a slow tragedy in innumerable acts.

The map of natural disasters shown in Fig. 4 illustrates how hurricane risk is concentrated along the Gulf and S. Atlantic coasts, the region highly influenced by the legacy of Christopher Columbus. Blaming 21st century coastal disasters in this geographic region explicitly on Christopher Columbus sounds preposterous, although the socio-political, socio-economic, and ecological influence that he established inadvertently is a legacy so pervasive as to suggest implicit causation.

Editor’s addition: Newyorker.com published an article by Amy Davidson Sorkin about the POTUS’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. The article includes potential impacts of the POTUS’ decision to abandon the clean energy initiative to restrict coal-fired power plant greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s a quote:

The Miami Herald pointed to a different measure: the current accumulated cyclone energy, which, it noted, is “254 percent higher than average with seven weeks left in the season.”.

 

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi,
    Is there updated data on storm surge attenuation resulting from coastal marsh systems?

  2. Good post and some interesting observations Len, I am sure there is a lot of truth there. My biological training leaves me skeptical that the continent was disease free for 23,000 years after humans arrived. For instance, there is evidence that Tuberculosis was present before Europeans arrived- http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/science/don-t-blame-columbus-for-all-the-indians-ills.html. Life expectancy was low especially in more densely populated areas https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/12o4py/what_was_the_average_life_expectancy_of_a_native/?st=j8nx5488&sh=16bd9bc2. A lot of the cause was due to poor nutrition and a hard physical life but disease undoubtedly played a role. Yes the European colonization was a disaster in many ways for the environment and native Americans but it wasn’t exactly a paradise for them before either.

    • Jim-
      Thanks for your comments and links to relevant info on the pre-Columbian health of Native Americans. I was appalled to read that our current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke yesterday referred to Native Americans as “Native Indians!” I suspect that he was kissing up to his racist boss, the POTUS, who clearly doesn’t think that our indigenous citizens are as worthy of being called Americans as are his lily white European relatives.
      Len

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