Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The past is a foreign country

In the last few months I've been writing a lot about how our modern society differs from any traditional one, and not necessarily for the better. The phrase “traditional societies” covers a lot of ground, of course; basically, I’m defining it as life before we began using energy at the breakneck pace we are today. I mean the cultures that existed before roads became jammed with cars travelling at high speeds, before Hollywood media took over and replaced local culture, and before people in the modernised West began to spend their lives sitting in cars or staring at screens.

Those things didn’t all happen at once, or all together – as I argued a few weeks ago, 1950s America presents a well-studied intermediate case of a somewhat modernised country whose traditional culture was still vibrant and functioning. Ireland in the 1950s, meanwhile, still relied mostly on human and animal labour.

Dividing human societies into the traditional and the modern means making sweeping statements; obviously cavemen lived differently than Ancient Greeks, who lived differently than American pioneers, who lived differently than 20th century Irish. Of course I’m not saying that all traditional peoples lived the same way, or that any of them were wonderful and without tragedy – and of course some were horrific.

I am saying that, despite the superficial differences in language and dress, my elderly neighbours share some commonalities with all the generations who came before them, and -- despite the similarity in accents and dress --  are now culturally separated from their grandchildren in the same village.

Until recently, for example, few humans spent their lives travelling long distances, except for the occasional sailor or nomad. Even most foraging tribes generally travelled over a limited area, and farming people not at all. Like most traditional people, my Irish neighbours grew up tied to a place, knowing it as they knew themselves, and having a responsibility to keep it healthy for their grandchildren. Of course archaeology shows evidence of times and places when humans destroyed the land, often out of ignorance of what they were doing, but more often people lived in the same places for centuries or millennia, which they could not have done if they had not practiced a sustainable kind of management.

Until the last few generations, few people were rootless – even nomadic tribes circulated around a certain area during the year, and were tied to their family. Most modern people tell only the songs and stories manufactured for them by a faraway industry, but traditional people belonged to a landscape and a way of life, to a clan and larger people with their own stories and songs that told of their history. Even if they were poor, most people did not feel poverty as we might today, for their lives were not spend drifting through a sea of strangers.

When my neighbours told me of the history of their place, they described all the local families and their histories, stories of local lords and landowners, rebellions and tragedies – and this despite the land being devastated so often by famine and exodus. Memories don’t reach back so far in the USA, but in small towns here, you meet people who take a similar pride in the place where they belong.

The children in Ireland today have some of these relationships, but you can see it fading as they relate more to Youtube or the latest global teen fad than they do to elders in the same town. In the USA, where this process has been going on the longest, we think of it as normal – we expect that teenagers will relate to the media and not with their families. But most humans in history did not make the same assumptions about young people, and I have heard people from many parts of the world report the same erosion of their local identity.

Until our era people rarely used money, or needed to. Of course money did not exist in prehistoric days, the first 99.9 per cent of human existence, yet those humans traded with other tribes all the same. Even after the ancient Sumerians invented the first coins, though, few people used or even saw a coin even there, and of course most people on Earth were not in Sumeria. A medieval peasant might never have seen money or needed to use it either, they worked, of course, but to grow food and raise animals, like most humans in any time and place. The giant detour that our work makes – to work for someone else, to get pay, to put in a bank, to withdraw, to spend at stores, with governments and companies taking a cut out of every transaction – didn’t exist.

I'm not claiming they lived in an idyllic Eden; of course they could be terrorised by war or disease, but so can many people today --- Westerners have simply been shielded from these realities for a few generations. Keep in mind, also, that medieval peasants might have worked far fewer hours every week than we do. Also, keep in mind that their work was necessary and meaningful, and often done together as a family – it was time spent with the family, not away from it.

Also, I’m not just comparing our modern world with prehistoric or medieval life, with no spectrum in between. My elderly neighbours here, growing up in Ireland in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, would have had money and used it, and even started their own business enterprises at young ages to get pocket money to spend. Those gave them treats, though; most of what they needed they knew how to produce for themselves. Some tell me they didn’t need to use money more than once a week, and that was small amounts from a hiding place.

To give you an idea of how little they needed money, Ireland in the 1970s saw a bank strike that lasted over a year – across the country, no one could withdraw money for more than a year. Of course, some people used a village credit union, or used the post office as a bank, as Irish people do today. Nonetheless, most people’s money was in banks, no one could withdraw for months, and yet life carried on as normal.

You can even see this to some extent in America in the 1950s and 60s – again, a world further along the spectrum to ours, but still less dependent than we are on a constant money stream. Banks then had tellers, not automatic cash machines, and most people visited them once or twice a week. People went shopping less, and instead of the dizzying number of products our stores carry, shops had staples that people used for cooking, or simple clothes that were more durable. ATMs didn’t exist, but people didn’t need them.

In every society that I know of – except our modern one -- children learned from parents and older relatives, and stayed close to their families until they came of age. In most of those children accompanied their parents as they hunted, ploughed, washed clothes, cooked food and all the other necessities of life, and learned the skills they needed to be adults. Children in more recent centuries went to schools, as my elderly neighbours did, but most countries children could walk to school, were taught by local people who were also part of the community. Most did not do what parents often do today, to send their children away to giant cement compounds to be raised by strangers.

In early America, for that matter, school took fewer hours of the day and fewer days of the year. They did not experience what modern children do, of being warehoused for 20,000 hours of their formative years. Yet many of those schools taught students far more, at earlier ages, than under our giant bureaucracies. If you want to see the level of education that many rural children received, read the letters of Civil War soldiers conscripted from homesteads. Or keep in mind that the Lincoln-Douglas debates, whose complex sentences often flummox college students today, were meant to be listened to, not read, and by simple farmers.

Until our modern society came along, no people shut their elders away in nursing homes, rarely seen by children and grandchildren and with only other dying people for company. In most traditional cultures elderly members of a family lived with their children or relatives, and most religions had some variation of the fourth commandment to honour one’s father and mother. Elders, though weakened in body, had a lifetime of experience that younger generations needed, whether in raising children, dealing with neighbours or handling emergencies. From a position of respect they could pass on the songs and stories of their people, giving children an umbilical link to the generations who came before.

We see the same pattern in other animals with some intelligence and family life; elephants, for example, need the elder members of the herd to keep the younger ones in line and show them how to deal with threats. When park rangers in South Africa introduced young elephants to a new preserve, after the older members of the herd had been killed, they found the young animals made unwise decisions for decades, only slowly learning, through trial and error, the right way to live. For generations many people in America today have grown up in the same situation, without elders to guide them through their lives, until we now have a population of children in adult bodies.

Just as most traditional peoples did not spend their work hours staring at a glowing rectangle, so they did not spend their leisure the same way. Children had games that were passed down for centuries – blind-man’s bluff and Johnny jump-up – that are only now disappearing in an age of video-games. Elders sang songs that told people who they were as a people, told stories of love and loss, of heroes and maidens, tragedy and humour and the human condition. My neighbours grew up with families visiting each other at night, gathering with the local storytellers and musicians, listening to the tales and singing along to folk songs they all knew, which had been passed down through the generations.

The modern era has changed our friendships as well; almost any humans in history, whether prehistoric tribes or medieval farmers, Hebrew herdsmen or American pioneers, dealt with a community of people outside their family who lived nearby, and had to maintain good relations with them. Small-town people, whether here or in the USA, retain some of this attitude even today; they have to know their neighbours and help out occasionally, as they might need help themselves.

You see the difference in the way my neighbours treat death with the way modern urban people do. When I lived in the modern city and a neighbour died, we found out when an ambulance parked outside, or a new couple moved in where the old lady used to live. Out here in rural Ireland, a neighbour’s death meant girls at the local school without a father, an empty chair at the pub, a voice missing from the hymns at church, a hole in people’s lives.

Such relationships soften our reactions to conflict; the person waiting in line ahead of us might have taken First Communion with us, and might have scored the winning goal in the school’s football match long ago, and might have a tractor we need in case a tree falls over the only road. Again, the details would change from one culture to the next, but every human society would have a web of debt and obligation like this, to temper our reactions to conflict and force us to see other people’s views. Enough threads like that, woven together, form a civilised society.

Only in the modern era, for most Westerners today, do “friends” largely mean icons on a screen, whose relationship with you consists of moving electrons around. Today we can “meet,” have “conversations,” “share” news, and even “date,” all without ever having to deal with the inhibiting presence of other humans. We can do these things under fake names and pictures, talking to people we will never meet in person, and say or do whatever we want without fear of consequences. People can appear and disappear from our lives, all without leaving any tangible presence, fading like ghosts when bored. 

The modern world has many advantages; until the last century food could be scarce, and even in good years it cost labour and sacrifice. At the same time, until the last century no humans ate food that had been flown across the world, packaged in chemical gases to preserve it and simulate a healthy colour. No humans ate food injected with other chemicals to make it more addictive. Instead, traditional people ate foods they knew, and had picked out of the ground or off a tree. Foods belonged to certain seasons, and tasted like a time and place. Meat came from an animal, hunted or herded, that had just been killed, unless it was salted and smoked. People recognised their food as precious and its sharing as sacred, the stuff of religious ritual.

Until ours came along, all human societies had rites of passage to mark when a girl became a woman, and when a boy had proven himself a man. Becoming a young man or maiden – what we today call a “teen” -- did not mean that they would spend more hours warehoused in an institution, or spend their time with gangs of other teenagers in places of maximum temptation; rather, it meant taking on more of the responsibilities of adulthood, preferably with older family and mentors to guide them.

Again, a childhood among the Bushmen or the Vikings would be very different from each other, and both would be very different than American pioneer children or mid-20th-century Irish. Each of these eras had injustice, disease and starvation, just as ours does. My point is that we are not sealed in a culture of driving and staring at screens, with all its advantages and disadvantages in a single package.

The past, with all its possibilities, is still there. We know what more traditional people did well that we do not. We can still grow, cook and preserve food without electricity, play the games and tell the stories that our forebears did, and sing the songs that told of their loves and tragedies. We can learn from the elders who remember these things, before the last of them disappear and the past becomes an utterly foreign country to us.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170622T125716Z

Heavens, what a good essay. We must hope that this gets reprinted, over and over. (I am wondering if perhaps I might reproduce it on my own blog, as I have previously obtained permission to reproduce a Brian Kaller practicalities-of-homeschooling essay on my blog -

I am also hoping that some people commenting here, or writing in other easy-to-find places on the Web, will eventually suggest nano-scale practical ways of resisting the current insanity. Sometimes there is so little one can do, and yet always one can do something, at any rate on the nano scale: the washroom in my modest basement flat in a nondescript plastic-and-concrete Toronto suburb, for instance, now has lots and lots of dried evergreen-tree cones on its window ledge, as does a ledge in my parlour. Thoughts, anyone?


Brian Kaller said...

Toomas, thank you! What parts of the changing world we should resist, and whether we can, is one of the most important things we could talk about; I'd love to hear more discussions of that, in ways that go beyond cliches of left and right, religious and secular.

You're welcome to reprint it on your blog!

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170623T012622Z

Thanks so much for this, Brian. Your quick response is a help in a time of anxiety and depression. I hope to be reprinting your essay in a few days, I think when it is almost dawn Tuesday morning in Ireland.



David Veale said...

I couldn't agree more with what you've written here, and daily grapple with ways in which I might change my own world for the better; to de-industrialize in terms of social community as well as with employment, food, and every other aspect of life.

I think much of the fascination with subjects such as peak oil and economic collapse (speaking for myself if not others) is really an attempt to know when there might be some sort of salvation from the industrial madness that still grows daily. While I'm certain that it will come, my guesses thus far have not been accurate in terms of timing.

At this very moment, I'm avoiding the work I should be doing (programming from home, for an industrial manufacturer). Thinking I should simply quit the job, but still fearing that doing so would plunge my family into chaos. I'm surrounded by the things I love do do (a farm, leatherworking projects, woodworking, draft horses), but cannot make a living at any of those in the face of industrialized competition, though I've tried and continue to try.

Here's to hoping that an economic/industrial collapse comes before the ecological.

bmiller said...

Brian, Another winner by you on a common theme you address eloquently and often. I tend to think of small town communities as an incubator of the best values humans have to offer, protection against the turning of the wheel. Once again I offer you two of my related posts. The first, on small town resilience: The second on how the past is hidden in plain sight:

Keep up the excellent writing.
My best,

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks, Tom.

Brian, I read and loved your essays -- I well remember Boonville, Missouri, and know people who grew up nearby. We passed through it when I was a boy, although it was probably fuller and more prosperous then. I'm adding your blog to my list, and will look forward to reading more.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20170624T161132Z

Folks, do have a look also at those essays by Mr Brian Miller:, cited above ("23 June 2017 at 23:06"):



Mr Brian Miller's two essays directly address Mr Brian Kaller's powerful themes. In the "Resilience" essay is language about small towns as "the yeast for the fermentation required to /.../ redirect the human trajectory". In the "Neolithic" essay is a phrase that calls to mind our harsh times in Estonia, under the 1940-through-1991 Nazi and Soviet occupations - "an elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out". Yes, indeed. Time is on our side, not on our opponents' side, as we confront the current culture of plastic junk, skillfully dissected by Brian Kaller. The weak and poor know how to Wait Them Out, patiently - ensuring that in their decades of waiting they conserve the memory of what has been temporarily taken away from them.

Tom =
(diaspora Estonian, currently in Ontario,
hoping in 2018 to make the Big Move back home to Tartu County,
as conditions may allow)

bmiller said...

Thanks, Brian, glad you appreciated the pieces. BTW I added your blog to my blogroll a few months back. So, much appreciated for the same.

Anonymous said...

We don't know or appreciate what we've lost until it is no more. Hopefully essays like this will be carried down through the generations even though little else will. I've linked to it on my blog.

Steve Carrow said...

Shifting baselines are what I am reminded of with this essay. When one is fortunate enough to move between cultures, between rural and urban environments, the sometimes stark differences stand out again, but when you spend your whole time in the modern western city, you don't realize how much things have drifted. ( or how much has been lost)

Public spaces where all are staring down at their hands, pubs and restaurants with large TV screens mounted on all walls, adverts in your face from all directions, the disconnected suburban housing tracts, each in their own isolation bubble, seem like "normal" given time. The mobility and personal autonomy that destroy community and a sense of place are both I think a product of the fossil fuel era, and will of course end, but how soon?

Humans are social primates, with all that entails. Maybe some of the pervasive anomie, stress, and malaise is because the norming and nurturing connections that were always there in the past are missing?

Brian Kaller said...

Thanks, Food!

Steve, I suspect you're right -- our peculiar habits in this electronic age are the cause of many of our social and psychological problems.

sv koho said...

Nice comments all and yet another fine and familiar essay from Brian Keller. I have had conversations like this recently because I have tried for many years to live as Brian does and I have been asked what can one do to change the destructive decaying culture that is 21st century America? My reply is generally "Nothing." You can't changed it by organized action or even revolution. You can certainly try but my strategy is far simpler. Start a new culture. How? By walking away from their culture. Don't eat their food, see or listen to their "entertainment,"don't travel in their conveyances,avoid their tourist destinations, don't vote in new political losers. Blow up the TV as John Denver suggested. Eat only your own food, kill raise or catch your own meat and fish, tend gardens and livestock, don't use machines unless you absolutely have to. don't engage in superfluous conversations about trivia which is most of what the media talks about even formerly useful media outlets like NPR. Consume nothing the industrial culture produces unless it is durable, repairable and simple to understand. Don't generate trash that has to be taken to a dump. we don't and abandoned trash service more than 30 years ago. If it has a motherboard, try to avoid it. (I write this as my motherboard herds electrons hither and yon between solid state circuits.) A person has to make exceptions but they prove the rule. Right? Get a lot of exercise, sleep when the sun goes down and get up when it rises. Never buy new when you can buy the old tried and true and by that I mean clothes, furniture, tools, houses and even cars and bicycles.Don't buy anything PLASTIC! Wear only wool, cotton or silk. For example my car is an early 80's mercedes diesel with a manual transmission. If it ever needs fixing which is almost never it is dead simple and usually obvious. All components are durable and sturdy. Minimal plastic. I have had it many many decades and it has a many miles on it but it has no computers or motherboards, or OBD computer diagnostics and the only electronics on it are lights and a radio. It can be fixed with hand tools. It gets 35 mpg and weighs 3500 lbs. Just a brief example. I rarely drive it more than 1000 miles a year. All its components are repairable or rebuild able. It resembles a tractor or a bicycle in its durability and simplicity. Leave the culture . Just walk away. Just say NO.