Sunday, December 9, 2012

The 15 Deadliest Human Caused Disasters

If there’s one thing humanity is disturbingly good at, it’s killing its own. We have an unparalleled ability to destroy ourselves and everyone around us, via war, famine, and the occasional attempt at collectivization. These 14 examples show just how adept we’ve become at self-slaughter over the past 2000 years, and are the most deadly punishments we’ve inflicted on ourselves.

15. The Soviet Famine of 1932-1933, 2.5-10 million
No one’s going to argue that Josef Stalin was a vicious murderer of millions, but I never realised how bad his policies were. In the early 1930s, the forced collectivization of farms in the Soviet bread basket lead to unmitigated chaos. Farm machinery was destroyed, and no one had any idea how to efficiently maintain a farming network on a collective scale large enough to feed the millions of citizens in the USSR. All the grain that was produced was shipped off to Moscow, and farmers were forbidden from eating what they had grown. This lead to the death of anywhere from 2.5-10 million, especially in the Ukraine, where it was known as Holodomor, the ‘hungry mass-death’. Now recognised as an act of genocide, it was originally kept out of the history books for being anti-Soviet, so the true estimates of the effects are hard to judge.

14. Great Famine of 1876–78, India, 5.25-10.3 million
Under the rule of Britain, the Great Famine hit in 1876, devastating southern and southeastern India. In its second year it spread north, killing even more. Prior, in 1873 a famine struck, but major loss of life was avoided by the British local government by spending a huge amount of money to import grain and look after the starving. Harshly criticized for this expenditure, when the next famine reared its head, those in charge took a hands off approach. Caused by an extended period of drought, the price of rice skyrocketed, and the aid offered by the government wasn’t nearly enough. Their idea of relief was allowing people to work for a full day without breaks or shade, and give them less food than they needed to survive. Consequently, millions died of preventable starvation.

13. The Thirty Years War, 1618-1648 3-11.5 million
A vast religious war in the Holy Roman Empire, it was waged by Germany against most of Europe at one time or another. You think we’ve been in Afghanistan for a long time? Try 30 years of constant conflict. Primarily fought between Protestants and Catholics, it eventually turned massively political, and was the basis of most of the power struggles in Europe for decades to come. The aftermath of the war was the destruction of massive areas of farmland. Not just through battle, but because the armies would devour anything they came across, destroying crops as effectively as any locust.

12. Yellow Turban Rebellion, China, 184-205 AD 3-7 million
Seven million deaths is a horrifying statistic now, but imagine how bad it would have been around 200AD. Think of how small the world’s population was then, and how devastating to a single nation a loss of 7 million lives would have been. That was around 3% of the world’s population that died in the rebellion, which was part of the Three Kingdoms War. It was a peasant revolt against the Han Dynasty, percolated by famine, loss of land through flooding, and rich landowners paying tiny wages to the massive surplus of workers attempting to find jobs to feed their family. The war was devastating to both sides, and left the state in a horrible condition.

11. The Dungan Revolt, China, 1862-1877, 8-12 million
China pops up a lot on this list. I’m just saying. This was a battle between the repressed Chinese minorities and the 19th century rulers of China. These people are still bitterly repressed by the larger Chinese ethnic groups, but lets not get into that now. The Hui and other Muslim ethnic groups in China had a tenuous peace with the Han people, and fears of Muslim raiders caused the Han to arm themselves, so the Hui armed themselves, and everyone got all antsy and boom, war broke out. These small local fights and battles coalesced into a centralized Muslim uprising against the Qing government, a war fought over 15 years, leading to millions of deaths.

10. Conquests of Timur, 1369-1405, 15-20 million
Timur, aka Tamerlane, aka Tamburlaine the Great was a Mongolian who sought to restore the glory of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. While he didn’t quite conquer as much as his predecessor, he did a pretty freaking good job. Across Middle East, India, Central Asia, Russia, he conquered and attacked many of the Muslim empires of the region, slaughtering as he went, but retaining keen skills in statecraft and was a patron of the arts. His eventual Timurid Empire stretched from Turkey to India, due in part to his incredible foresight, including planning his campaigns years in advance. His campaigns carried a fierce death toll, some 15-20 million people died in the formation of this empire.

9. Taiping Rebellion, China, 1851-1864, 20-30 million
The Taiping Rebellion in China in the 19th Century was between the Christian zealot Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to have received visions from God and that he was the younger brother of Jesus, and the ruling Qing dynasty. This Christian sect was heavily militarized, and eventually seized a huge area of southern China, controlling some 30 million individuals under the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Once in power, they pushed through strict social reforms, including Christianity, abolition of other religions, collectivization of assets, and separation of sexes. Eventually the Qing government crushed them with the help of British and French allies, and at the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864, more than 100,000 were killed in three days. However, of the 20-30 million dead, the vast majority were civilians who died of famine and plague.

8. The Holocaust, 1941-1945, 5.5-20 million
Do I really need to say much about the Holocaust? It’s still fresh in the minds of many, and as much as some whackjobs want to deny it ever happened, it did. Somewhere around 10 million people were viciously repressed and murdered. The most well known persecuted group were the Jews, who saw six million of their people dead, but they weren’t the only ones. The Nazis also targeted the disabled, the Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Jehova’s Witnesses, the Polish, Soviet captives (2-3 million of them), mixed race children, Asians and Blacks. The more recent examples of genocide - like in Africa or Eastern Europe - have nothing on how widespread and destructive the Holocaust was, and how many different groups were targetted in it.

7. Great Chinese Famine, China, 1959-1961, 15-43 million
Remember the Soviet Famine that we talked about earlier? 30 years later, and China did the Great Leap Forward, making the same mistake, but with much, much worse results. That’s right, high estimates peg the death toll at some 43 million people. When the official communist government estimates put the death toll at 15 million, you know the results must have been horrifying. As part of the Great Leap Forward populations were massively shifted, and people forced into collectivized farms, yet again causing incredible widespread famine and death. Farmers were forced into industrial jobs they had no experience in, leading towards drops in crop production, and yet again people were starving and forbidden to eat the food they produced.

6. An Lushan rebellion, 755-763, 33-36 million
Compared to the horrors of the rest of this list, the 35 or so million who disappeared in the An Lushan rebellion sound like a much smaller number. Even so, in the 8th century AD, 35 million people is a full 15% of the global population. That’s right, a full one in every seven people, when you average it out. Can you imagine that devastation today? It would be close to a billion people. However, it might not be that that many people actually died. The An Lushan rebellion saw the Tang Dynasty threatened by the upstart Yan Dynasty and the brutal war between the two ended with a Pyrrhic victory for the Tang. While the actual death toll is pegged at around 10 million, the complete breakdown of the empire’s structure and ability to run itself meant that all social services disappeared for much of the empire, leading the extra 20 million to just vanish from the records. While 36 million people may not have died, that’s how much the population declined.

5. The American Holocaust, 1492-1900, 2-100 million
The American Holocaust is a divisive subject, and many argue that it’s impossible to call something genocide or a holocaust if it’s in place over the course of hundreds of years. Others argue that from when Europeans landed in the Americas until the 1900s, there was a concerted effort to disenfranchise and kill the native population, a move tantamount to genocide. Their cultures were uniformly attacked and stripped away, biological warfare was in place, and in South America especially, the colonizing troops utterly brutalized the native populations. Correctly estimating the number dead is tricky - it’s not like there were any accurate pre-Colombian censuses. Current estimates put those first numbers at 50-100 million, of which only a fraction remain today.

4. World War I, 1914-1918, 15-65 million
Before the second world war, the original was merely called the Great War, or occasionally, the war to end all wars. I guess that didn’t last. But it did bring about a new generation of destruction and warfare, unlike anything seen before. Up to 3.6% of the global population died from the war and its effects, that’s if you take the high estimates of 65 million dead. While the actual dead due to combat is a substantially lower number, the Spanish Flu which hit in its midst was directly worsened due to the conflict, and if plagues and famines from other wars count to their death tolls, they do in this case too. 65 million dead. Damn.

3. Conquest of the Ming Dynasty, 1616-1662, 25 million
In this brutal war between the Qing and Ming dynasties in 17th century China, a full 4.8% of the world’s population was killed. 24 million people dead. As the Ming dynasty began to fall, the economy became unstable, and weather changes lead to a weak and poor state, ripe for the picking. Trapped between a huge peasant rebellion in its borders, and the Manchu lead Qing invaders, the Ming was crushed like a grape, ushering in the unified Qing dynasty, which established the Chinese borders we know today, and ruled until 1911.

2. World War II, 1939-1945, 40-72 million
Even with the horrors of the first world war a mere 20 years previous, the second was far, far worse. The concept of mass destruction of enemies - both civilian and combatant - was realised on a scale that had never before been seen, and has never been seen since. Conservative estimates call the death toll 40 million, but the upper reaches could reach close to 72 million dead - from fighting, from hunger, from genocide. Even just in pure number of combatants killed, it’s the most deadly single war in the planet’s history.

1. The Mongolian Conquests,1207-1472, 30-60 million
Stretched out over more than 200 years, the Mongolian war machine crushed and enveloped all of Asia, the Middle East, and much of Europe. Most famously under Genghis Khan, this immense empire established itself through a bloodshed never before seen. While the death toll might not seem as high as WWII, the lower global population level meant that almost 17% of the world’s people were killed during this incredible power push. It was an incredible death toll, and short of blanketing the Earth in nuclear bombs, we’ll never see its like again. Thank god.

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