Forward to Nature

So yesterday, I went over to a friend’s house to play a board game. I’m not really a game enthusiast myself, but he sure as hell is—has whole shelves of board games and regularly attends national conventions. And he loves those games that have something like a half-dozen different tracks toward success and lots of tiny pieces. This particular game was called Mare Nostrum and dealt with empire-building in the ancient Mediterranean area. Yes, one invades and occupies areas, but these areas produce different resources, and some of these areas allow for the building of so-called “legendary cities.” One wins by either: collecting five hero cards (the heroes being special cards that allow for particular advantages to the empire that possesses them); holding the lead in the trade, culture, and military tracks; occupying and/or building four legendary cities, which are spread across the map; or building the pyramids. And there are lots of tiny pieces in this game.

I’m just a simple person. The games I enjoy—and I’m not really a gamer of any sort—tend to require a lot less be kept in the head.

But if I had a bit of a miserable experience (and lost, though these are two separate things), I did walk away with a thought or two. My main thought is: the discipline of history is inadequate.

What I mean by this is that history is a discipline looking at the past of human beings and the societies they create, and that particular focus is inadequate. I am by disposition a bit of a specialist on violence, particularly racial violence, especially racial violence in this state of Arkansas. I have found particularly helpful the sort of conflict theory that has grown out of the discipline of political science, especially folks like Marc Howard Ross, who has written a lot on ethnic conflict. According to Ross, ethnic conflict is driven by the variant psychocultural narratives held by each of the contesting groups (think Northern Ireland), and that the successful resolution of such conflict depends heavily upon opening up those narratives to include, rather than exclude, the other. You’ve got to expand your definition of “us.”

And this is what I mean about the inadequacy of history. That board game, and all those maps in your college world history textbook, show the rise and fall of empires, map the progression of violent conflict between these various groups of humans. And there is a bloody tale to tell. But we ignore a far greater level of violence because our “us” is fairly narrowly defined. That is to say, we rather separate human endeavors from the real, lived-in environment in which those endeavors take place. Sure, this board game acknowledged some of the variations of geography by having various resources distributed accordingly—wood here, olives here—but the exploitation of those resources was not connected to violence except by means of helping to fund the violent endeavors of these various empires. Resource exploitation was not considered war because war only occurs between groups of human beings.

But imagine a different map. Imagine that those world civilization textbooks not only charted the retreat of ancient empires, but also the retreat of various other species as humans moved into the area. Imagine tracking extinction alongside genocide. Imagine telling a version of history that includes all of us, beyond just the human story. Imagine being honest about the wider network of violence in which humankind is implicated.

Imagine history taught as ecology.

Scholars of violence write with the hope that their endeavors may help to eliminate some of our species’ worst impulses—that, by the rigorous study of atrocity, we can begin to recognize the warning signs and head it off at the pass. The current state of the world may well require a new kind of scholarship, not the least of which might be the application of conflict theory to the field of environmental heath.

How might we think differently about our civilizations if we went down this path? The artist Mark Rothko once quipped that he often heard people talking about going back to nature but that he never head anyone wanting to go forward to nature. Well, this might be the opening we need.

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