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I.

As I mentioned back in July, I’ve been listening to the Fall of Civilizations Podcast by Paul Cooper. In his latest episode he tells the tragic tale of the fall of the Aztecs. The tale of how Hernán Cortés, with just a few hundred men, and more importantly a combination of diplomacy and disease, toppled one of the world’s great civilizations in just three years. The tale of how Cortés was able to accomplish all this in such a short time, with so few men, is fascinating and appalling in equal measure.

On the other side, the doom of the Aztecs and Montezuma is both tragic, and unavoidable. Certainly they could have handled the invasion of Cortés better. By striking at the right moment they probably could have defeated him, but even if they had, the eventual outcome would not have changed. In any case, it’s hard to place much blame on either the Aztecs or Montezuma, they just had no idea what they were dealing with. And it’s really this aspect I want to focus on, how abruptly the world changed from one they largely understood to one that only existed in their nightmares. I want to focus on the more general category of sudden catastrophe. Those times when history turned on a dime. 

Interestingly, the podcast actually contained two examples of this phenomenon. There was, of course, the story of Cortés and Montezuma, but Cooper actually began the podcast by talking about the Chicxulub Asteroid, and the impact which ended the 180 million year reign of the dinosaurs, in a single moment of unimaginable destruction. He mentioned this, both because the asteroid impacted very near the empire of the Aztecs (albeit millions of years previously), and because it’s another example of things turning on a dime.

I understand that dinosaurs did not have the intelligence to appreciate or even notice the tiny light in the sky that would eventually end their existence, but it’s interesting to imagine what it might have been like if they had. If, say, they had possessed the intelligence of our hominid ancestors. They might have recognized that the light in the sky was something new. As it got closer and brighter they might have wondered what that meant. But would they have ever imagined that in a few short days or hours that their world would be completely and utterly destroyed? It’s only in the last century or two that we would have understood that. 

Montezuma was in a very similar position, though he had a few years as opposed to a few days, but there is still an enormous amount of dramatic irony to the story. Where we can see the impending and enormous catastrophe at the end of the story, but even at the moment of his death he still could probably only see a fraction of the oncoming calamity.

Montezuma was born in 1466, so 26 years before Columbus’ arrival, into a long string of Central American civilizations stretching back thousands of years. More consequentially, when he was born the two worlds, old and new, had been separated for more than ten thousand years beyond that. If we limit ourselves to considering just the Aztec Empire, it had been ascendent for at least a century, and reached its greatest size during Montezuma’s reign, where he ruled from the center of the largest city in the Americas. All of which is to say that things looked great for him in the years leading up to contact with the Europeans. He was the leader of his known world’s greatest empire. He had vanquished all of his rivals, and everyone treated him like a god, which absent the Spaniards he might as well have been. But in their presence it would all turn out to be meaningless.

Even though Columbus arrived in 1492, it actually wasn’t until 1517 that Montezuma first heard of the Europeans when Juan de Grijalva landed on San Juan de Ulúa. Montezuma ordered a watch to be kept, and I’m sure he was curious, but I don’t think he had an inkling that three years later, as a result of these new people, he would be dead. That one year after that his empire would be overthrown and that within 60 years 95% of his people would be dead from disease. If he had known, it’s unclear what he should have done. In many respects he was just as powerless as the dinosaurs had been 65 million years earlier. 

Certainly had Montezuma known what was coming he would have been very fatalistic, and many of the earlier historians blamed Aztec fatalism for contributing to the ease with which Cortés conquered them. This fatalism supposedly had nothing to do with the new arrivals, and was derived from the appearance of a comet, and the ending of an Aztec era. But not only has that theory been entirely abandoned by more recent scholars, it’s belied by the circumstances of the story. When Cortés first arrived at the Aztec capital Montezuma welcomed him in, thinking that he was engaging in wise diplomacy with representatives of a foreign state. Had he been fatalistic he would have attacked and destroyed them, regardless of the casualties. But he still thought that his empire was going to continue as it always had, and he was far more worried about his vassal states and what it might look like if he lost thousands of men to kill a few hundred, so he welcomed them in instead. Meaning that fatalism, which I am often accused of, probably wasn’t present and didn’t contribute to the Aztecs defeat, and if it had been present, it might have helped. 

II.

As we examine the story of Montezuma, and others like it we notice that there are three distinct stages. And that these stages are the same one’s described by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, in his famous quote:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Rumsfeld took some flack for that statement at the time, and that whole framework is based on the Johari Window. (Which I’ve referenced before.) But I’ve always thought it represents something very important. In this case it perfectly describes the distinct stages of sudden catastrophes. 

The first stage is the unknown unknowns stage. It’s Montezuma in 1516, thinking he ruled over the greatest empire in history, and never suspecting that amongst all the things he was ignorant about, were empires far greater than his own. Empires who not only possessed superior technology, but whose citizens were carriers for a host of horrible diseases against which his people lacked all immunity. 

The second stage is that brief period between the first evidence that something new is happening, but before it’s clear how bad it is. In Rumsfeld’s construction it’s the known unknown stage. In Montezuma’s case it’s 1517-1519, when he’s aware of the arrival of the Europeans, but he’s not sure what kind of threat they pose. When his power to respond is still at its maximum, but unfortunately his knowledge, while not as bad as the first stage, is still near the nadir. 

The final stage is when the new reality has finally set in, the known known stage. The empire has fallen, Montezuma is dead, the first of the epidemics have started and the Spanish are in charge. Montezuma himself wasn’t around for this, but lots of Aztecs were. And while they still didn’t know everything they knew enough to know that Europeans were bad news. 

On top of the above some catastrophes are easier to foresee and prevent than others. Returning to the dinosaurs, that catastrophe would have been impossible to prevent even if the dinosaurs could have understood what was going on. On the other end of the spectrum, as long as we’re on the subject of Rumsfeld, the catastrophe that was the Iraq War should have been relatively easy to foresee and prevent, particularly since it was a catastrophe of our own making. The tragedy of the Aztecs is somewhere in between, though certainly closer to the dinosaur end than the Iraq War end. 

III.

What is a person living in 2020 supposed to do with all of the above? To work backwards, first we should be doing everything we can to make future catastrophes easier to see and prevent. This is a huge topic all on its own, but perhaps one example will suffice. In 1998 both Deep Impact and Armageddon were released to theaters, and it was noted at the time, that the budget for either movie would be sufficient to find all of the asteroids over a certain size that might impact the Earth. In other words for the cost of producing the movie we could prevent the events in the movie from coming to pass. Instead we made two of them. The search for asteroids is ongoing, currently the goal is to identify 90% of all asteroids larger than 460 feet in diameter by 2020 (which probably won’t happen). But if an asteroid does smash into the earth and we could have found it, but spent the money instead on making a movie about it happening, we’re going to feel pretty silly.

From there we’re not doing as well as we could on those catastrophes in the known knowns category. The chief example here is the opioid epidemic. We’ve known that opium and its derivatives are addictive since at least 1750 and yet we somehow forgot that or choose to overlook it recently and started prescribing truly insane amounts of it to people. (See my previous post about that here.) And even once we recognized the scope of the problem I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been slow to act. Which is not to say the problem isn’t complicated with a lot of moving parts. More that it’s a catastrophe in the easiest stage to deal with, it’s a known known. And if we can’t deal with catastrophes at this stage what hope is there for dealing with them early enough to prevent the damage.

The next category, known unknowns is where most of the excitement is. This is where people fight over things which might be catastrophic. Whether it’s rising right-wing extremism, inequality, AI risk, pornography or nuclear weapons. This is important work, and I hope in my own small way to contribute to it. For those with more resources, philanthropists, foundations, government, etc. I would like to see even more money and time spent on it. But it’s really the next category that represents the primary focus of this post: the unknown unknowns.

As I said, this is precisely what Montezuma was facing when he was born in 1466, and when he ascended the throne in 1502. The forces that would desolate an entire continent’s worth of people were already in motion and he had no idea. I think it’s valuable to consider what Montezuma could have done. Particularly, without assuming any additional knowledge about future events.

As it turns out science and technology in general would have been extraordinarily helpful. The Aztecs did not know the Earth was round. They did not know how diseases were transmitted. (Many anthropologists have claimed that the way the Native Americans dealt with sick people helped to spread the many epidemics.) Their metallurgy was not particularly advanced, meaning both their weapons and armor suffered. Obviously I could go on, but you get the idea.

The foregoing becomes very important if we assume that we’re in the same position as Montezuma, that there’s some unknown unknown out there waiting to pounce and spread death on a scale never imagined. Perhaps you think we’re not in this position, I doubt it. In fact, I would say that we are in exactly the same position Montezuma was, we just aren’t sure if we’re in the equivalent of 1516, 1492, or 1300. Which is to say we don’t know if something is just around the corner, if it has already started, but is decades away from manifesting, or if it’s hundreds of years in the future. But I don’t think the various time horizons, make as much difference as you think, also to be honest, just like Montezuma, I think we’re going to be surprised how powerless we feel when the crisis point arises. 

If there is hope, then it lies in science and technology, and we have to do more than talk about how cool it is, we have to use it in a muscular and aggressive fashion. Facebook and Uber are not going to save us, but fusion and putting people on Mars might. And despite our best efforts unknown unknowns are still difficult to deal with and there is no sure path to success. But there’s many reasons to believe that our current path is less sure than most. We are all of us Aztecs, and sooner or later Cortés will arrive. 


One thing you can be certain of, at the end of each post I’m going to make a plea for donations. It’s a known known if you will. If you feel even the slightest twinge of guilt, that’s also a known known, and it can be defeated far easier than Cortés.