Why We Refuse to Learn From History

Even those who know and remember many historical facts still repeat the mistakes of that past.

Why We Refuse to Learn From History

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So George Santayana, Harvard intellectual, whose main contribution to history was to write books no one reads any more.


“History is bunk.” So Henry Ford, high school drop-out, whose inventive genius transformed history.

Both were wrong. History is not bunk. The Founders of the United States, men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, believed that history was the most important subject for all citizens of a free republic to study.

Even those who know and remember many historical facts still repeat the mistakes of that past.

The generation of politicians and military leaders in Europe of 1914 were well-versed in history. Most were graduates of schools and universities that focused on Greek and Latin and the study of ancient and modern history. These leaders could have told you in detail how the Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC. An alliance of Greek states led by Athens went to war with an alliance of Greek states led by Sparta. The war began over a relatively insignificant event in a far off part of the Greek world. The war could have been avoided. But bungling politicians allowed it to grow into the most destructive war in Greek history.

These same 1914 politicians would allow an assassination in a far-off corner of Europe to bring the two alliances of the great powers to bungle into a war that would consume the lives of 11 million soldiers and altar forever the civilization of Europe and the world.

After World War I, a new generation of politicians, many knowing and remembering a great deal of history, would follow the same course to an even more destructive war, killing 50 million men and women.

This blog is devoted to Learning the Lessons of the Past. Even more importantly, this blog is devoted to applying these lessons of the past to making decisions in the present and to planning for the future. This is what I mean by “historical thought.”

The Founders of the United States believed that the purpose of studying history was to make us better, better as individuals, better as citizens of a free republic. In other words, the Founders shared the view of the classical Greek and Roman historians, like Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus. The study of history has a moral purpose.

Uh oh- I have made you mad. We do not believe this today. Oh, yes, many books about history are written. Biographies of presidents become best sellers. There are numerous television channels, devoted to history. Along with the electronic media, we are awash in historical information.

But as a society, we do not think historically. We do not use the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present and to plan for the future.

If American political and business leaders thought historically, American troops would not be fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The financial crisis would not have happened.

The world of 2011 suffers from a fatal delusion. We believe that we are immune to the lessons – the laws – of history. We believe that our modern science and technology has lifted us above the lessons of history.

However, as the American Founders understood, the lessons of history endure because human nature never changed. All the human emotions are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.

In our next post, we will discuss the First Lesson of History: We do not learn from history.

J. Rufus Fears

[Image: George Santayana, Wikimedia Commons.] 

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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