At the beginning of the 20th century Europe ruled the world. It presided over a vast colonial empire in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Its population was growing briskly. Many decades had passed since war had devastated its landscapes and decimated its younger generations. Major discoveries and innovations quickly followed, and the general improvement of living conditions held the promise of alleviating the masses’ poverty. Nature, which had triggered epidemics and famines over the centuries, appeared to be under control. But the situation swiftly changed, and in the brief span of thirty years two major devastating wars were fought. The destructive force of political decisions and actions overshadowed the ruinous power of natural events. Two world wars, tens of millions of deaths, civil wars in the Soviet Union and Spain, famines in Russia and Ukraine, forced migration, ethnic cleansing, genocide –political action’s toxic fruits claimed far more victims than those caused by microbes, extreme weather or other natural events.
Massimo Livi Bacci is professor emeritus at the University of Florence and a member of the Italian Accademia dei Lincei.