A Piece of the World Without Us

I had a phone call from a friend yesterday. The purpose of her call was to share with me an idea for a novel. The idea? Write a novel that follows the development of what is now the United States of America had the land been left “undiscovered” by Columbus, et al, and had evolved entirely under the guidance of its native inhabitants. Though I don’t see myself writing the book (though it’s a possibility, I guess), I was intrigued by the idea.

What if, I asked myself, the indigenous peoples of this country we call home had been left to their own devices, without outside interference? What if Canada and Mexico had, somehow, developed according to history but the “U.S.” had been left untouched, except for trade—or not—with the neighbors north and south? My thoughts go immediately to the extreme improbability that “Indigenous America” (as I’m now calling it) would have been left untouched. I mean, really, how could the indigenous people have maintained control over such a large expanse of territory, while just across the north and south borders development took place apace? My mind struggles with the concept. Without the U.S., what would the rest of the world looked like? Europe would have evolved in very different ways than it did. Would there have been a World War I without the U.S.? What about World War II? And, assuming there would have been a World War II, how would it have concluded, without the U.S.?

It’s impossible to wrap my head around the ways in which the world would have been different. Had it not been for the English colonizers, I believe it would have been someone else. The indigenous people would have had to fight other Europeans for control of the territories in which they lived. Or, perhaps, after Europeans captured and took control of what is now Canada and Mexico, those countries would have grown into imperialist powers, seeking to expand their dominion. Perhaps, without the U.S. and its slave trade, the African tribes that served as sources of the slave trade would have evolved in very different ways, possibly resulting in an industrial revolution in Africa, leading the continent early into an era of modernity and technological leadership. Or, perhaps, European and Asian imperialists would have taken different paths in Africa, becoming partners with Africans, rather than conquerors.

My skeptical and pessimistic self bubbles to the surface, finally, as I consider these and a hundred other scenarios: humans, being the selfish, ravenous beasts they are, would not have let the indigenous people of North America alone. Whether Europeans or Asians or South Americans or Africans, someone or many someones would have licked their chops and waded in to a land of riches, hell-bent on extracting every bit of value they could from its shores.

Or, even if left alone, I suspect the tribes that had long engaged in skirmishes to protect their territories would have eventually gone to war with one another with the objective of taking control.

One thing is certain. Had the indigenous people of what is now the U.S. been left alone, I would not be here today. At this moment, I cannot decide whether that fact makes me sad or glad. I suspect the very idea of “how would I feel” about this fictional history and where it would have left the world today is utterly absurd. But it’s still intriguing.

[The title of this piece is not meant to interfere with or otherwise cause confusion with the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. That book takes “us” well beyond what I’m thinking. It’s an absolutely engrossing book, by the way, in my opinion.]

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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