• Dan Connors

It could always be worse- stories of failure throughout history


Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up

Tom Phillips 2018


We depend on leaders for our very existence, and count on the principle of meritocracy to make sure that only the best leaders rise to the top. But a quick look around puts that theory into the trash, as all over the world there are uneducated, lazy, and hubristic morons leading companies, states, nations, and our planet blindly into one disaster after another.


A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up is a set of stories detailing some of the worst examples of idiotic and destructive leadership throughout history. It continues a growing literary trend of using the F word in the title without actually using it, bringing the powerful emotion of the word without all of the baggage. Tom Phillips is a writer and professional fact checker for Full Fact, and he has written an entertaining if depressing recap of some of history's worst debacles- some of which are famous and some of which are obscure. All of them make you shake your head that such behavior is even possible.


Part of the problem with humans, who have evolved to be both smart. creative, and powerful, is that they rely on mental shortcuts to get things done. We are busy and ambitious, and those shortcuts make things happen faster. These shortcuts- anchoring bias, availability bias, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect and more, make us overconfident and extremely bad at foreseeing risks and potential downfalls of our actions. As I write this a foreseeable sh*tshow is unfolding in Ukraine, with death and destruction that could have been avoided. One could argue that much of the 20th and 21st centuries have been exercises in failed leadership, with wars, scandals, pandemics, and economic crises that could have been handled much better or even avoided.


I will try to summarize some of the more instructive failures from the book that caught my attention here:


1- We have messed up our environment many times throughout history with devastating results.

- Diverting water from the Aral Sea in Asia has turned it into a dry lake bed, devoid of life.

- The residents of Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, cut down all of the trees on the entire island and suffered unintended catastrophes.

- The Dust Bowl of the 1930's can be pinned on disastrous agricultural policies that encouraged too many farmers to tear up too much marginal land. When the rains stopped the dust storms took over.


2- Some of the worst rulers in history were mentally ill narcissists who should never have been put in a responsible position, much less ruling a country. These stories are fascinating, and involve names I hadn't heard before including Qin Shi Huang of China, Ludwig of Bavaria, Saparamurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and an amazing slew of corrupt and disastrous leaders of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. Authoritarianism, which we are toying with now, resulted in unaccountable dictators who overestimated their own brilliance and underestimated the disastrous consequences of their decision. As messy as democracy is, at least it provides some checks and balances against the worst that these despots can offer.


3- Tampering with nature has often led to disaster.

- Introducing rabbits to Australia, where there were no natural predators, led to such an overpopulation problem that the country went through decades of attempts to eradicate them. Booming rabbit populations threatened crops, and the Australians had to resort to shooting them, building huge fences, and introducing a virus to kill them off, all with mixed results.

- Mao's 4 pest campaign in China tried to rid the country of Sparrows, with disastrous consequences as the locusts that the sparrows had been eating exploded in population threatening crops and helping to cause a devastating famine. China eventually had to re-import sparrows from Russia to replace all the ones they had killed.

- Kudzu vines, Starlings, Asian Carp and Killer bees came to the US in the 20th century as a result of misguided planting and breeding policies, and attempts to control them have failed in many cases.


4- The tale of William Paterson and Scotland's attempts to establish a colony called Darien in Central America should give people pause. They did just about everything wrong that could be done and ended up abandoning their colony in the late 17th century. The Vikings also had disastrous attempts in the 15th century, and even Columbus, who was the most successful explorer turns out to be one of history's great villains.


5- The cautionary tale of the Khwarezmian Empire in the 13th century shows how one incompetent ruler can inflame Genghis Khan, bring ruin to his country, and wipe them from the history books. Its ruler killed an entire trade mission that Khan had sent, inviting an invasion that toppled the large empire in just two years.


6- The book ends with a slew of stories about how scientists have messed up, which should encourage a healthy skepticism when dealing with scientific findings.

- Many scientists fell for a hoax in the 1970's called Polywater, that supposedly had qualities unique from normal water. It was found to be the impurities in the water that were the cause.

- Other questionable science from the 20th century included N-Rays and eugenics, "discoveries" that were touted by many and found to be lacking years later. Eugenics was the racially motivated theory that justified the holocaust, slavery, and much of mankind's inhumanity.

- And one man, Thomas Midgeley, managed to contribute two of the most problematical environmental pollutants in his lifetime. He added lead, which was cheap but deadly, to gasoline to make it more efficient, a finding that likely poisoned an entire generation with a destructive element, and then he followed up with CFC's for refrigeration, a type of greenhouse gas that's also been connected to the depletion of the ozone layer.


The stories of this book are cautionary and morbidly entertaining, and one would hope that humanity has learned something from the failures of the past. We tend to bury failures, both large and small, deep in our subconscious and not want to deal with them. It's easier to point to individuals, saying, "he messed up, and it was an isolated incident of one person's failings" than to say "society messed up in empowering these idiots, and we've got to do better in choosing our leaders."


Phillips closes the book with a depressing look at some of the problems of today like climate change, space trash, antibiotics, and cryptocurrency, wondering aloud what unintended consequences could come from the failures of today. Reading this book is a guilty pleasure of schadenfreude, laughing at the mistakes of others. It's easy to feel cynical and hopeless that we are just f*cked as a species and give up. Or, you could get mad when you hear about failures like these and resolve to learn from them and do better. I prefer the latter.


Books like this are fun in a dark way, but the stories in it are obviously cherry-picked to show some of the worst examples of humanity's screw-ups. You could just as easily fill a book with inspirational stories of people who took a bad situation and made it much better, and that would be useful too. Humans have a negativity bias that puts more emotional energy on stories of failure, and so they need to be countered with positive ones twice as much. Life is a balancing act between enjoying success and learning from failure, and it's important to look more closely at our failures in order to make better decisions in the future. The main lesson from this book is that we know much less than we think we do, and some intellectual humility can go a long way to avoiding mistakes. Overconfidence is our strength and our weakness, and how we find a way to rein it in when reality bites back will determine our eventual survival as a species.



“We tend to assume that when something awful happens there must have been some great controlling intelligence behind it. It’s understandable: how could things have gone so wrong, we think, if there wasn’t an evil genius pulling the strings? The downside of this is that we tend to assume that if we can’t immediately spot an evil genius, then we can all chill out a bit because everything will be fine. But history suggests that’s a mistake, and it’s one that we make over and over again. Many of the worst man-made events that ever occurred were not the product of evil geniuses. Instead they were the product of a parade of idiots and lunatics, incoherently flailing their way through events, helped along the way by overconfident people who thought they could control them.”

Tom Phillips

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