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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Looking to the past

Aurora @ Island Dreaming

The problems that the world has begun to face (whether consciously or not for the majority) - financial, energy and resource descent, and an increasingly unpredictable climate - signal the onset of a decline in material living standards for many of us - a sizeable number of whom have got used to ever increasing levels of consumption and material wealth over the past decades. How we individually and collectively navigate these challenges will largely determine the quality of life we experience; and I personally do not believe that a decline in material consumption is a one-way ticket to misery and social breakdown.

Last year I finally got around to visiting my city's flagship tourist attraction - the historic dockyard. This is the home of the Royal Navy, and the place that it keeps its historic flagship, HMS Victory. As Victory is now preserved as a museum in dry dock (though technically it is still in commission) and has been restored and patched up several times over the centuries, it offers a sanitised view of life on a 250 year old warship. There were no fires, slop buckets, wounded soldiers, or unwashed sailors on board when we visited and conditions on board would have been grim when the ship was in active service.  But it did show that humans have lived and thrived with far fewer resources, far less complexity, than we have today. 


Fast forward a century, or take a walk a few hundred yards across the dockyard, and step on board HMS Warrior, the most advanced warship of the 19th century navy. The British Empire project was well under way, and it shows - a majestic, iron clad ship boasting the very best engineering and built and furnished from raw materials imported from across the world. By today's standards, it is still rustic (no running hot water, no electricity)  but it shows something of how humans climbed up one side of a bell shaped curve to the level of energy and resource consumption we enjoy today. Can the past show us a possible path down the other side of that curve?


 In the UK there has been a resurgent interest in WWII era house keeping since the onset of the financial crisis. This era, more so than more recent economic recessions, inspires people. Government pamphlets from the era covering everything from victory gardens to 'make do and mend' have been republished, and wherever you are in the world, you have probably seen at least one piece of merchandise or blog buttons with the phrase 'Keep Calm and Carry On' splashed across it. 1940's cookbooks have been reprinted and ration diet challenges taken - none of which is necessarily a bad thing when it inspires people to face the material challenges in their lives with 'Blitz spirit'.


The problem with looking to the past for inspiration on how to live today is the tendency to over-romanticise things, to look through the prism of the Hollywood movies we may have seen - to believe that society was rosier back then and the hardships that people faced were more severe but somehow more 'real' and endurable than the more familiar, boring challenges we may find ourselves facing today. A discerning eye is necessary when adopting historical practices and 'lost' skills - some make no sense, financially or ecologically, in the modern era. Still, many of us will be engaged in old fashioned, rustic and downright medieval experiments of our own in our quest to lead simpler, less consumption driven lives; and we will extract great enjoyment from them. 

If we can overcome a tendency to romanticise, there are real lessons to be learnt from the past. As humans we have used our ingenuity and opposable thumbs to increase our ability to exploit resources, increase consumption and create waste. Any era before our own shows that it is possible to live with less than we have today; and it is possible to live a good life with much less. Combined with the vast knowledge we now have in physical, environmental and social sciences - knowledge we have traditionally channelled predominantly into growing a consumer society - the practices and perspectives of our less spendthrift forbears might show us a way forward through challenging times. If our ascent has been characterized by increased consumption and  decreasing quality, increased outsourcing and decreasing self reliance and self determination - how might we be able to fashion our descent?

I am currently rereading articles and books from the 1970's and 1980's fuel crises and back-to-the-land movement, and the DIY and craft books that were spawned by that era - because they happened to be my first introduction, many years ago, to the issues we currently face. Much has to be taken with a pinch of salt, much is still valid and inspiring. What periods of history are you inspired by?

4 comments:

Frugal Down Under said...

I've been reading current books on eco cleaning, organic gardening and budget cooking. However many of this books are based on old methods from the past.

Tonight I read on how to clean with vinegar, bi carb and eucalyptus oil, then my partner and I fully scrubbed our bathroom. And for once he was able to contribute without getting an asthma attack.

Talking about old ships, he's been lucky enough to be selected to volunteer on the "Endeavour" replicate tomorrow night. He will get to guard and sleep in one of the ships hammocks and get a small taste of what it was like on a ship over 200 yrs ago.

mollymakesdo said...

I'm usually inspired by the Edwardian Age - a way of the life that's not too far off from what we can acheive simply - using advances like electricity/medicine/etc. but tempered with things handed down by tradition. Though like you said, it's all taken with a pinch of salt - I'm not one to start wearing Gibson girl hair and high neck blouses.

elaine rickett said...

I have several cookbooks from the war years which I often refer too and make slightly modern additions to the recipes. What was good for them must be good enough for us in these straightened times.

Dea-chan said...

How has Laura Ingalls not made it here yet? :-P (During a hands-on weekend at Sharon Astyk's we all admitted to reading WAY too much Little House as a kid.)

I also have many early 1900s cookbooks that often have advice on such diverse topics as: feeding sick people, cleaning lace, dealing with the help, etc. I glean the good bits out of these, and ignore such hilarious statements as "Scientists have discovered these new things called VITAMINS." (circa 1920)