“Apollo 11” is a documentary that compiles video and other recordings from the first space mission to land astronauts on the moon. As I watched the film, what came to mind was watching a baseball game in the 1950s. In those days, someone would hit a home run and then casually trot around the bases to home plate, shaking hands with the third-base coach and perhaps the next batter up. There was no ceremony and no celebration. There wasn’t even a change in expression. The homer was noteworthy but even more noteworthy was the restraint. It was not restraint of modesty alone, but of propriety. It was how a man should behave when he achieves the end to which he dedicated himself. Only at the final game of the World Series was boisterous celebration by the victor permitted.
In the footage of the control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, I saw rows of men (they seemed to be all men) in the uniform of their profession (short-sleeved white shirts and black ties) sitting tensely in front of their monitors, speaking tersely when not silent. They were restrained by tension of course, but also by the culture of the time in which self-control and dissolving the self into the team were the norm. At the moment the lander touched down, there was a moment of jubilation and some handshakes, but the moment soon ended and everyone fell silent.
This was one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It was a moment toward which these men worked for nearly a decade. They knew it was a great moment, and everyone watching knew it, too. There was no need to demonstrate the obvious. If something majestic had happened, everyone would realize it. If the moment was not majestic, then extended self-congratulation would not make it so.
In their expressions, all they projected was that the job had been done well, which is as it should be. Whether the job involved hitting a home run or flying a spacecraft to the moon, it required no further reward and certainly no self-congratulation. Somehow I get the sense now that, for many, doing the job you were paid to do requires some sort of celebration. For the controllers in Houston, they did what they signed on to do and were obviously pleased at the success, but the moment was actually more significant because of their restraint. Times have changed.
George Friedman, chairman
I enjoyed reading “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” so much that I decided to pick up the sequel, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.” Unfortunately, the sequel turned out to be a bit of a disappointment because of its far-reaching scope. I expected to read about how Latin America changed after European colonization. This book goes well beyond that to explain the global reaches and impacts of European colonization of the Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, the author does a wonderful job of weaving together history, science and modern geopolitical practices to create an engaging narrative that presents a balanced blend of detail and big-picture overview.
Throughout the book, Mann explains how each major region of the world either affected or was affected by the integration of the Western Hemisphere into the global system. He starts with the devastation caused by diseases associated with European contact on indigenous populations in the Americas. He also examines how disease among European settlers impacted historical events such as the Atlantic slave trade, the U.S. Civil War and Scotland’s unification with the United Kingdom. In addition, the introduction of the potato in Europe was a transformative moment in history, according to Mann, because it helped alleviate hunger across the Continent and revolutionized European agricultural practices. Mann also chronicles the impact of increased contact with Pacific powers of the time, particularly China. For Europe, this was a double-edged sword in that it helped feed a booming population but also had a massive ecological footprint.
The book covers themes that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago, including the problems associated with an interconnected global financial system, the drug trade, black market and illicit activities, trade wars, and questionable business practices aimed at maximizing profit. There are also multiple examples that show how parts of the world developed differently. Slave labor, for example, had a bigger impact in certain regions than others. And the location of the world’s wealth shifted dramatically after European arrival in the Americas. Before Columbus, the wealthiest cities in the world were located in tropical regions; after 1492, they began to shift north to include Europe.
The most enjoyable feature of this book, however, is how it captures the absurdity of geopolitics. Among the best examples is the importance of short-lived commodities, particularly guano – accumulated bird excrement rich in nitrogen – which served as an early, natural fertilizer. The British monopoly on the largest sources of guano led to the 1856 U.S. Guano Islands Act, which enabled U.S. citizens to take control of unclaimed islands with large guano deposits. Mann also addresses the idea of humans being used as commodities and expendable resources. And his repeated referrals to famines and food shortages throughout history remind us of the great lengths to which people went to secure food supplies in the past. Suddenly the possibility of making insects a staple in human diets doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Allison Fedirka, analyst