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Terrible Historic Things Which Did (Some) Good

Written by Katy Watson

The past is littered with examples of horrible things happening. Wars, plagues and natural disasters have impacted the human population and the planet in many negative ways. But has anything good or useful ever come out of these terrible events? Maybe it’s just the way you choose to think about things but if you look hard enough, there are some silver linings to be found.

Genghis Khan – Green War Machine

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13th century warlord, Genghis Khan, is known for many things. He united tribes, abolished slavery, set up a postal system but also killed a lot of people during the expansion of his empire. And by “a lot of people”, we’re talking tens of millions and some historians estimate that up to 11% of the world’s population was killed during the 150 years or so that the Mongol Empire dominated the planet. So what possible good came out of that? 

As we know all too well, humans have a tendency to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere whether through burning fossil fuels or cutting down useful things like trees, so removing 40 million humans in quite a small time frame had huge benefits for the planet. Presumably this will come as no consolation to any of the deceased, but Khan’s rampages which obliterated city after city from the map, allowed areas that had been cultivated for agriculture to eventually return to their natural, forested state. According to the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy, Khan was the biggest eco-warrior around, being responsible for removing about 700 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. While this is about what we emit globally in a week nowadays, it did have a small but measurable impact at the time. 

A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics concluded that around 16 million or 1 in 200 men alive today is a descendant of Genghis Khan. Maybe they should get together and brainstorm carbon offsetting ideas for the 21st century, with the caveat that there should be no mass murder involved. 

The Black Death – Not all Dark

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Starting in the mid 14th century, the Black Death was more effective than Genghis Khan at wiping out the population. While it’s difficult to know for sure, estimates from 75 to 200 million deaths have been attributed to it as it struck down people all across Europe and Asia. In fact, we can still blame the Mongols for the speed at which the plague spread. Thanks to opening up trade routes such as the Silk Road, people could easily travel and spread the disease wherever they went. Mongol sailing ships also carried fleas and rats infected with plague around to new ports and countries, increasing the number of carriers and victims exponentially. 

The Black Death is really an umbrella term for 3 similar plagues that tore through Europe, Asia and the Middle East between 1348 and 1350. While the best-known is the bubonic plague, you had a better chance of surviving that than if you contracted the pneumonic plague or the septicaemic plague, both of which had mortality rates of nearly 100% if left untreated. 

So what’s the upside here? Well, there are a couple. The first relates to the old adage “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” By studying and comparing nearly 800 skeletons for a PhD thesis, anthropologist Sharon DeWitte concluded “The results of this study indicate that mortality and survivorship improved in the generations following the Black Death, and that the patterns observed are not simply an artifact of temporal changes in fertility.” Basically, if you survived the first wave, you and your descendents had a better chance of living much longer during the subsequent plagues that continued to occur over the 14th century. 

As well as weeding out the people with weaker immune systems, the plague also brought benefits to the societies that were left over. There was more food for everyone, regardless of social level. There was more land available and also more workers were needed meaning that people could command higher wages. 

For some countries such as France and England, some of the poorest members of society started benefiting from the decrease in the workforce. They were able to increase their wages and improve their living conditions. Eventually, after this and other things such as peasant revolts, the practices of serfdom and feudalism, where people are bound to work on land owned by someone richer, started dying out in Western Europe. 

So, apart from all the death and near collapse of society as they knew it, the people of fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe, Asia and the Middle East were, in general, more robust health and wealthwise. Because of a lack of understanding about how the plague was spread, people started to become more open to things like questioning established religious beliefs. Existing power balances were upset and a mix of people moving around to escape the plague brought many different cultures into contact with each other. The Black Death was one major factor that paved the way for an exit out of what is now referred to as the “dark ages” and led to the Renaissance period and advancement in human learning and culture.

The Great Fire of London – Burning Ambition

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A lot happened in London, England, in the 17th century. Guy Fawkes and other perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. The English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651 and King Charles the First was executed for treason in 1649. The plague reared its ugly head again, with multiple outbreaks over the century, the largest known as “The Great Plague of London” which killed over 100,000 people in a year and a half from 1665 to 1666. On top of all this came a fire so large that it destroyed most of the city inside the old Roman city walls. The fire started in Pudding Lane on September the 2nd, 1666 and continued burning until September the 6th. 

Famed diarist, Samuel Pepys described  that he saw “the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.”

The fire spread quickly because many of the buildings were made of wood and packed tightly together. There was also a strong wind fanning the flames and the use of firebreaks, made by demolishing houses, was not immediately put into action, allowing the fire to spread further and further. 

While it seems that most people had the chance to escape with their lives, if not their possessions, the same cannot be said for the city itself. It’s estimated that over 13,000 houses and over 85 churches were destroyed. The main post office, three city gates and a number of prisons also burned down. Landmarks such as the Royal Exchange, Old St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Custom House were devastated by the flames. The fire caused over 8 millions pounds in damage at the time, which is the equivalent of around 2 billion pounds today. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this terrible event brought about the birth of a new London. 

The fire had a cleansing effect on the dirty, plague-filled streets as the 1666 epidemic was the last one London experienced. As it was rebuilt, improvements were made to increase levels of general hygiene and to cut down on overcrowding by widening the streets and constructing more buildings out of stone and brick, rather than wood. The seeds of the London Fire Brigade were sown and much needed attention was given to constructing buildings that conformed to codes newly drawn up in the wake of the fire. St. Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt under famed architect Sir Christopher Wren and is still one of London’s most recognizable buildings to this day. 

While it took the city a long time to recover, people living in rebuilt areas saw their rents plummeting as former Londoners had decamped to areas outside the city and weren’t moving back. Overall, while it was a drastic way of modernizing, the Great Fire of London did end up forcing the city to improve itself and by the 1700s, it was the most powerful city anywhere in the world. 

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World War One – Some Positive Legacies

The First World War was a brutal and destructive time in history, with around 16 million people dying and the political map of Europe being extensively redrawn. The mere circumstance of being at war, however, greatly advanced technological innovation as countries rushed to bulk up their assault weapons and defenses. Aerial combat was used in World War One, despite the fact that aeroplanes had only really been around for a few years. France had fewer than 150 planes at the start of the war, for example, but by the end of it they had produced over four thousand. 

Because of the huge number of injuries occurring every day, medical innovations also took a big leap forward. The first blood banks were created and things we take for granted these days like leg splints, greatly increased a soldiers’ survival rate. Marie Curie invented smaller, more robust x-ray machines that could be put in vehicles and transported across the battlefields, allowing medical staff to locate shrapnel and fractures in their patients.

Sociologically, women took up more of a productive role in many countries and this led to women over 30 getting the right to vote in England in 1918, paving the way for anyone over the age of 21 to be able to vote in 1928.

Another huge and lasting innovation came out of World War one in a slightly more roundabout way. US firm, Kimberly Clark, used their trademarked, extra-absorbent cellucotton to manufacture surgical dressings when the US entered the war in 1917. A year later, the war came to an end and the military no longer had a use for so much of this material. Thanks to the Red Cross nurses who had been using it for their own personal needs, Kimberley Clark pivoted to making a product that half the population needs every month for around thirty years of their lives. The first commercially produced sanitary towels under the name “Kotex” were born in 1920 and the cellucotton boom didn’t stop there. In 1924, the material was smoothed out and sold as the first facial tissues, under the name Kleenex. 

Chernobyl – Nature’s Gain

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There wasn’t much to celebrate when Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s number 4 reactor exploded in April 1986. As well as two people dying in the explosion, a further 28 died shortly afterwards due to acute radiation syndrome. Over a quarter of a million people had to be relocated from areas immediately around the plant and a huge amount of contamination was released into the air, spreading over the rest of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.  

Unlikely though it seems, the disaster did have some positive benefits almost immediately following the explosion. There was help and cooperation between the East and West over nuclear safety and improved power plant designs. Mikhail Gorbechov credits the Chernobyl explosion as having been very instrumental in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

While the long-term health effects of all the airborne radiation on humans has not been conclusive, it seems that the local wildlife hasn’t been too badly affected by the disaster in the long-run. The Chernobyl exclusion zone which covers an area around the plant of about 1000 square miles or 2,600 square kilometres is actually now a thriving area of biodiversity and a haven for many different species of mammal. Numbers of elk and deer are at similar levels in the radioactively contaminated site as at other comparable reserves elsewhere in Ukraine and Belarus. The wolf population is booming thanks to a lack of human predators. 

The overall takeaway is that anything that forces humans out of an area is eventually going to be good for the environment, even if it takes a nuclear disaster to do it.

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