Tuesday, May 7, 2013

May 8th, 1980: The Greatest Day in Human History?

Why humanity’s single defining moment as a species may have occurred 33 years ago today…

One of the problems we have, as a global community, is a lack of shared achievements. Granted, there are tons of shared customs, rites and traditions held by individual nations and ethnic groups, and some of these are viewed as all-encompassing aspects of the social experience. Even so, the total scope of these (for lack of a better term) “holidays” are quite limited. Take Christmas, for example, an extraordinarily popular rite and day of celebration for 2 billion people, across the planet. The thing is, there are about 5 billion people on the planet (give or take), whose interests in Christmas (as a customary celebration) are either superficial or completely non-existent. As perhaps the most widely celebrated, transnational holiday on the planet, that’s still a pretty small overall sliver of the total world population, no matter how you crunch, slice and dice the numbers.

Clearly, holidays are important rites for specific cultures. Things like Christmas and Ramadan provide a sense of global cohesion to a very large population of people, but to consider either to be pan-holidays, if you will, is pretty inaccurate. Along those same lines, pan-cultural national celebrations (the 4th of July here in the States, Thanksgiving, etc.) may be widely celebrated across a particular geographical area, but to say that such festivities are truly causes for global celebration is more than a little absurd. Hell, for that matter, it’s not like nationalized rites of the like are even celebratory functions for people within those same borders -- just ask any Native American how they feel about Turkey Day, and you’ll see what I mean.

With so many holidays anchored around such divisive things as nationalism and religion, it’s not really a mystery as to why a true, global holiday has never really taken off as a concept. During a particularly ennui-filled evening, I decided to take a look at a Time Magazine list of 200 (allegedly) history defining moments over the last 200 years, and needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of events on display that gave reason for the entire world to cheer. (No B.S.: among the 200 most important events in world history since 1800, the publication considered the arrival of both The Sex Pistols and The Oprah Winfrey Show to be among the most earth-shattering events in recent human affairs. In other news: oh my god, eff Time Magazine, so hard.)

Emboldened by Time’s pathetic excuse for both journalism and historical documentation, I decided to comb the Internet, looking for ANY event in modern human history that could be considered a worldwide cause for celebration. Needless to say, finding a single event that EVERYBODY on the planet could cheer on over the course of the 20th century is more than just a wee bit difficult.

For starters, I am convinced that nothing good happened to anybody in the world up until probably the late, late 1950s. The last hurrah of colonialism, revolutions a plenty in Russia, World War I, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism throughout Europe, and all the associated fun attached to World War II (and with it, the Cold War and the subsequent, omnipresent threat of global nuclear obliteration) means that finding a reason to celebrate anything during the first half of the 20th century is about as reasonable as searching for a wife in a brothel. The mid part of the 20th century gave the first and second world something halfway-plausible to champion (the space race and the associated technological boons thereafter) while the end (more or less) of colonialism gave individuals in the third world something to cherish. Of course, neither could be celebrated as truly global goods, since poor folks in the Sudan have no use for a rocket ship, and plenty of unemployed Britons faced an economic pummeling at home once mercantilism bit the big one.

One could feasibly consider the downfall of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s to be causes for global celebration, but depending on who you asked, all that really entailed was the removal of one oppressive economic system for another. The information and communications technology revolution of the same time frame -- which resulted in cell phones, the Internet and a whole bunch of other stuff we probably couldn’t live without anymore -- seems like definite global holiday material, except for the fact that parts of the third world (and for that matter, even some pockets of the first and second) still have yet to reap these fruits of modernization.

So, is there any precise moment in the 20th century that EVERYBODY -- from Wall Street hyper-capitalists to Scandinavian socialists to Ethiopian farmers -- can all get together and reflect upon as a truly outstanding moment for humanity?  Well, I thought long and hard, and came to the conclusion that there’s really only one date in modern human history that could adequately serve as truly global holiday.

Let’s hop into the Way-Back Machine and travel to May 08, 1980, shall we?

On the surface, it seemed like a fairly innocuous Thursday, with nothing really going in world events that could be construed to be insanely positive or insanely negative. The big story going on at the time was the seizure of an Iranian embassy in London by a bunch of pissed off dudes from the Khuzestan Province, which had concluded three days earlier, while in the States, the big domestic news regarded Edmund Muskie being officially sworn in as the new Secretary of State. But amid all of that (let’s face it, forgettable) news, something positively earth-shaking was announced in Geneva, Switzerland.

I don’t really need to tell you this, but there sure was a lot of death going on in the 20th century. Combined, World Wars I and II resulted in at least 76 million deaths, while the commie trifecta of the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia probably killed just as many non-combatants throughout the 1900s.

Now, what I want you to do is take the total number of people killed by totalitarian communist regimes and add it to the total number of people killed during the two World Wars. That results in about 160 million deaths, give or take. That’s a staggering number of corpses, right? Well, imagine a global force that killed twice that many people during the same time frame…a force of nature that may have resulted in the deaths of as many as half a billion people over the last 100 years of human history.

Folks, I would like you to meet the single greatest killer in the history of humanity…variola major and variola minor, A.K.A., the ungodly, Satanic scourge better known as smallpox.

I want you to click on over to the Wikipedia entry on “smallpox.” The very first image you see is a photograph, in horrifying color, of a Bangladeshi child, whose body is covered in grotesque pustules. The first time I saw the image, I was absolutely jarred by the sight; a terrifying fate, I would like for you to keep in mind, that has been suffered by literally billions upon billions of people throughout human history.

There’s really no way to estimate the total number of human beings that have died from the disease (which may have been around as early as 10,000 BCE), but World Health Organization figures conclude that smallpox killed about a third of everyone that contracted it. According to one source, the death rate for young children that contracted the virus may have been as high as 80 percent, with the disease claiming the lives of at least 2 million people annually up until 1967.

You do the math on this one. 2 million fatalities a year, times 12,000 years of human history. An unscientific estimate, to be sure, but that comes out to a probable 24 billion human deaths at the hand of the disease; seeing as how only about 107 billion people have ever lived on earth, it’s very, very likely that, throughout the course of human history, smallpox may have been a factor in about 22 percent of all human deaths ever. Like I said, that’s a totally unofficial estimate I kinda’ cobbled together using the loosest of statistics (i.e, completely yanked out of my own anus) but still; smallpox undeniably killed an absolute ton of people, for an unfathomably lengthy amount of time.

What makes May 8, 1980, such an important -- perhaps, even, the single greatest day -- in the history of humanity, then? Well, it’s because that was the day that the World Health Organization officially declared smallpox to be eradicated -- as in, completely obliterated, gone for good, completely wiped off the face of the planet (well, mostly -- read “The Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston if you ever need a good pants pissing before bedtime).

I’m just going to link you to the Wikipedia article summarizing the eradication process -- that which began with Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccination in the late 1700s up until the WHO authorized the Smallpox Eradication Team -- a truly international initiative carried out by a the USSR’s Deputy Health Minister Viktor Zhdanov, American epidemiologist Donald Henderson and Czech physician Karel Raska.

World Health Assembly (WHA) Resolution 33.3, released on May 8, 1980, marked the occasion by stating the following:

Now, with that in mind, why the hell don’t we celebrate May 8th as an international holiday? Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single achievement in recent human history that a.) had such a massive, overarching influence on the lives of so many individuals, across the globe, b.) demonstrated the cooperative nature of mankind in the face of oppression (remember, the eradication process was conducted in tandem by representatives of two nuclear rivals that were ready to blow each other to smithereens at any moment) and c.) proved the triumph of man over nature, of science, technology and knowledge over biological destruction.

And on this very day, 33 years ago, humanity triumphed over what may very well be the greatest destroyer of human life in history, positively obliterating one of the deadliest forces of nature from the very face of the Earth itself.

And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate, I don’t know what is, folks.


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