Learning from history

I love history. From Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’ to Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’; through fictional novels woven around historical facts to memoirs of growing up in cultures I find hard to imagine; the places, times and experiences relayed show how much has changed about the way we live, yet how little the people portrayed differ from ourselves. Humanity may have adapted to a different way of living, but we still think and feel as our ancestors did. We still react to our immediate, personal circumstances and cope, because we have no other choice if we are to survive.

So much of the history that we are taught as fact has been gleaned from the merest scraps of information. Archaeologists and anthropologists become very excited when new finds are uncovered as they may revisit premises and further their understanding. They are not afraid to question established orthodoxies; to share and build on knowledge gained elsewhere. They will interpret the artifacts, location and any other information available from elsewhere to establish the historical story as best they can. They make educated guesses based on what is already known; what has gone before and what we have now; they use their expertise, but do not try to claim that they can explain everything fully. It is often the unknown, the what might have been, that makes the tale so compelling.

More recent history benefits from information preserved in writing. The oldest scripts would have been written by the very few scholars; wealthy or religious, educated men with time to write and resources to allow this pastime. The writers may have had employers or sponsors; they were most likely under the influence of the rulers of their age. The histories of the time need to be read in this context to be understood. The physical evidence preserved in land and grave can often tell of a more sinister undercurrent pervading the culture of the time. Social history is complex and often disregards the impact of events on the poorest yet most prolific.

As literacy spread, so too did the nature of the writings preserved. Life expectancy and leisure time increased for many allowing the slightly less wealthy and even some women to start writing accounts of their lives and times. The official records would still be produced by the powerful victors and, through the ages, some have tried to destroy accounts of histories that did not tell the tales that they wished to be perpetuated. The power of propaganda was well understood and the general population considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves.

Eminent historians are well aware that context and bias must be taken into account; authenticity can be scientifically checked but reliability is harder to gauge. Talk to a sibling about their memories of an event from a shared childhood and differences in recollection become apparent. When a history is recorded it is from the perspective of the writer whose own recollections will vary over time.

With the advent of the internet it sometimes seems that we can research the true facts with just a few clicks. Unfortunately the very opposite is too often the case. The hidden agendas of the powerful come into play as their influence and subterfuge skew the perceptions of the general population, still considered too stupid to be trusted with interpreting events for themselves. One of my pet grievances is the way in which global warming, now referred to more accurately as climate change, has been presented to the public over the past thirty or so years.

I am not an expert in science or climate science, merely an interested observer. I can see the sense in not polluting the soil where we grow our food or the air that all living things need to survive. I understand the benefits of biodiversity and the importance of being good stewards during our time on this earth. What I object to is the pervasive anthropomorphic climate change industry and the lies woven as facts to influence decisions made by the wealthy countries of the world to financially benefit the few at a significant cost to so many.

The Natural History Museum in London has a display in it’s dinosaur section showing temperature fluctuations over millions of years. It is clear that the earth’s climate changes regularly and has always done so, even before man walked this earth in his present form. These climate changes are very gradual in terms of a human’s lifespan but obvious in the geological evidence that exists. Keeping detailed records of temperature, rainfall and other weather phenomena are a very recent practice (from around a century ago) and the data collection methods have changed over even this short period of time making reliable, scientific comparison tricky. Examples of extreme weather are mentioned in some historical documents but these do not provide a clear picture (mentions refer to the effects of the Little Ice Age which was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period but climatologists and historians working with local records cannot even agree on either the start or end dates of this period just a few hundred years ago).

Given that this is a controversial topic in which I have an interest, I will save my opinions on recent climate change pronouncements and their impacts for another post. I see it as a prime example of the wealthy and powerful trying to force their opinions on a gullible public with a clever mix of carefully placed publicity and misinformation. More than anything though, it is a lesson in how history can be skewed to suit the influential of the time.

It can be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the truth will be uncovered by those who are capable of unearthing the evidence and interpreting the facts with critical and impartial deliberation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we can learn from history if we open our eyes to how and why it has been written. Our descendants may well look back on our gullibility and wonder how we could not have questioned what was being done ‘for our own good, and that of our children’. I hope that they do not judge us too harshly for not taking more affirmative action to prevent the inevitable impact of our inaction; for passively complying with the wishes of those in power.

P1010261