Over the past
several years we have learned that small groups of people can engage
in mass suicide. In 1978, 918 members of the Peoples’ Temple led
by Jim Jones perished after drinking poisoned koolaid. In 1997,
39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult died after drugging themselves
and tieing plastic bags around their heads. Unfortunately, history
also demonstrates that it is possible for an entire civilization
to commit suicide by intentionally destroying the means of its subsistence.
In the early
nineteenth century, the British colonized Southeast Africa. The
native Xhosa resisted, but suffered repeated and humiliating defeats
at the hands of British military forces. The Xhosa lost their independence
and their native land became an English colony. The British adopted
a policy of westernizing the Xhosa. They were to be converted to
Christianity, and their native culture and religion was to be wiped
out. Under the stress of being confronted by a superior and irresistible
technology, the Xhosa developed feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.
In this climate, a prophet appeared.
In April of
1856, a fifteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse heard a voice telling
her that the Xhosa must kill all their cattle, stop cultivating
their fields, and destroy their stores of grain and food. The voice
insisted that the Xhosa must also get rid of their hoes, cooking
pots, and every utensil necessary for the maintenance of life. Once
these things were accomplished, a new day would magically dawn.
Everything necessary for life would spring spontaneously from the
earth. The dead would be resurrected. The blind would see and the
old would have their youth restored. New food and livestock would
appear in abundance, spontaneously sprouting from the earth. The
British would be swept into the sea, and the Xhosa would be restored
to their former glory. What was promised was nothing less than the
establishment of paradise on earth.
told this story to her guardian and uncle, Mhlakaza. At first, the
uncle was skeptical. But he became a believer after accompanying
his niece to the spot where she heard the voices. Although Mhlakaza
heard nothing, he became convinced that Nongqawuse was hearing the
voice of her dead father, and that the instructions must be obeyed.
Mhlakaza became the chief prophet and leader of the cattle-killing
News of the
prophecy spread rapidly, and within a few weeks the Xhosa king,
Sarhili, became a convert. He ordered the Xhosa to slaughter their
cattle and, in a symbolic act, killed his favorite ox. As the hysteria
widened, other Xhosa began to have visions. Some saw shadows of
the resurrected dead arising from the sea, standing in rushes on
the river bank, or even floating in the air. Everywhere that people
looked, they found evidence to support what they desperately wanted
to be true.
began their work in earnest. Vast amounts of grain were taken out
of storage and scattered on the ground to rot. Cattle were killed
so quickly and on such an immense scale that vultures could not
entirely devour the rotting flesh. The ultimate number of cattle
that the Xhosa slaughtered was 400,000. After killing their livestock,
the Xhosa built new, larger kraals to hold the marvelous new beasts
that they anticipated would rise out of the earth. The impetus of
the movement became irresistible.
of the dead was predicted to occur on the full moon of June, 1856.
Nothing happened. The chief prophet of the cattle-killing movement,
Mhlakaza, moved the date to the full moon of August. But again the
prophecy was not fulfilled.
movement now began to enter a final, deadly phase, which its own
internal logic dictated as inevitable. The failure of the prophecies
was blamed on the fact that the cattle-killing had not been completed.
Most believers had retained a few cattle, chiefly consisting of
milk cows that provided an immediate and continuous food supply.
Worse yet, there was a minority community of skeptical non-believers
who refused to kill their livestock.
The fall planting
season came and went. Believers threw their spades into the rivers
and did not sow a single seed in the ground. By December of 1856,
the Xhosa began to feel the pangs of hunger. They scoured the fields
and woods for berries and roots, and attempted to eat bark stripped
from trees. Mhlakaza set a new date of December 11 for the fulfillment
of the prophecy. When the anticipated event did not occur, unbelievers
was rescheduled yet again for February 16, 1857, but the believers
were again disappointed. Even this late, the average believer still
had three or four head of livestock alive. The repeated failure
of the prophecies could only mean that the Xhosa had failed to fulfill
the necessary requirement of killing every last head of cattle.
Now, they finally began to complete the killing process. Not only
cattle were slaughtered, but also chickens and goats. Any viable
means of sustenance had to be destroyed. Any cattle that might have
escaped earlier killing were now slaughtered for food.
began in late spring of 1857. All the food was gone. The starving
population broke into stables and ate horse food. They gathered
bones that had lay bleaching in the sun for years and tried to make
soup. They ate grass. Maddened by hunger, some resorted to cannibalism.
Weakened by starvation, family members often had to lay and watch
dogs devour the corpses of their spouses and children. Those who
did not die directly from hunger fell prey to disease. To the end,
true believers never renounced their faith. They simply starved
to death, blaming the failure of the prophecy on the doubts of non-believers.
By the end
of 1858, the Xhosa population had dropped from 105,000 to 26,000.
Forty to fifty-thousand people starved to death, and the rest migrated.
With Xhosa civilization destroyed, the land was cleared for white
settlement. The British found that those Xhosa who survived proved
to be docile and useful servants. What the British Empire had been
unable to accomplish in more than fifty years of aggressive colonialism,
the Xhosa did to themselves in less than two years.
now stands on the brink of repeating the experience of the Xhosa.
Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth
century, Europe and North America have enjoyed the greatest prosperity
ever known on earth. Life expectancy has doubled. In a little more
than two hundred years, every objective measure of human welfare
has increased more than in all of previous human history.
Civilization is coasting on an impetus provided by our ancestors.
There is scarcely anyone alive in Europe or America today who believes
in the superiority of Western society. Guilt and shame hang around
our necks like millstones, dragging our emasculated culture to the
verge of self-immolation. Whatever faults the British Empire-builders
may have had, they were certain of themselves.
built a technological civilization based on energy provided by carbon-based
fossil fuels. Without the inexpensive and reliable energy provided
by coal, oil, and gas, our civilization would quickly collapse.
The prophets of global warming now want us to do precisely that.
Like the prophet
Mhlakaza, Al Gore promises that if we stop using carbon-based energy,
new energy technologies will magically appear. The laws of physics
and chemistry will be repealed by political will power. We will
achieve prosperity by destroying the very means by which prosperity
Civilization sits confused, crippled with self-doubt and guilt,
the Chinese are rapidly building an energy-intensive technological
civilization. They have 2,000 coal-fired power plants, and are currently
constructing new ones at the rate of one a week. In China, more
people believe in free-market economics than in the US. Our Asian
friends are about to be nominated by history as the new torchbearers
of human progress.
Deming [send him mail] is associate
professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.